Mazzuca: Limited money, endless options |

Mazzuca: Limited money, endless options

It can be reasonably argued that local government’s primary responsibility is the allocation of finite resources (our tax dollars) that have alternative uses. Within the context of our Board of County Commissioners’ fiscal responsibility, finite resources mean that “The cumulative desires of the county’s taxpayers will invariably exceed the available tax dollars to pay for them all.” A corollary to that maxim might be “If finite resources had only one use instead of many uses, operating the county government would be relatively simple.”

Come to think of it, if we had unlimited resources we wouldn’t need a Board of County Commissioners at all; rather, all we would require is a county business manager to direct the flow of dollars. But Eagle County doesn’t have unlimited resources, which brings me to the point of today’s commentary: Is the purchase of the Gates Ranch conservation easement the best use of taxpayer dollars?

I’ve spoken with people on both side of this issue, and the debate doesn’t lack passion. However, what’s really needed in this discussion is a dispassionate assessment underpinned by sound fiscal policy and the logistical realities of that property.

The taxpayers voted to approve the open space tax several years ago. Nonetheless, one would hope that the Board of County Commissioners would take into consideration that the referendum passed by the slimmest of margins (50.2 percent to 49.8 percent) and therefore carries an obligation to scrutinize open space issues more closely than if the referendum had passed by an overwhelming majority.

The passage of the referendum allowed the Board of County Commissioners to acquire, maintain, and permanently preserve open space in Eagle County. However, we also must keep in mind that if the acquisition of this conservation easement replicates the Bair Ranch decision, once purchased, those easement rights won’t belong to the county ” the Eagle Valley Land Trust will hold them, while the Gates family retains ownership of the property.

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One proponent of this purchase accurately pointed out that 20 years ago residents of the valley considered “downvalley” the “boonies” just as many consider Burns the boonies now. While that may have been true, it’s also true that 20 years ago Avon, Edwards and Gypsum all had immediate access to an interstate highway and a major regional airport ” community characteristics that Burns doesn’t have.

Each of us makes daily choices about the best use of “limited resources” i.e. our money. Do we replace a threadbare sofa or buy a hi-def TV? Do we remodel the kitchen or purchase a new car? Do we take that Mexico vacation or put money away for a rainy day? Out of necessity we make choices when allocating finite resources that have alternative uses, and the Board of County Commissioners should be no different when allocating our tax dollars.

Is purchasing this easement a good use of county tax dollars? Consider the following:

– There appears to be a huge disparity between the asking price for the easement and the appraised value of identical property just 90 feet away across the road.

– Protecting view corridors, primary rivers, and watersheds that the majority of the county’s citizens have access to should be a primary goal of conservation easements. Would this transaction meet those criteria?

– Considering the property’s remote location and lack of infrastructure, is it really at risk of being developed?

– Should the Eagle Valley Land Trust own easement rights purchased with taxpayer dollars? While unlikely, what if for any reason the Land Trust ceases to exist? Then what?

– Would it make more sense for the county to hold the easement rights or perhaps even purchase the property outright and then create a preserve for the use of the county’s taxpayers?

– Finally, while not a windfall per se, due to recently increased property valuations and increases in sales tax revenues, the dollars available to the commissioners are expected to increase significantly in 2008.

The Board of County Commissioners has the thorny task of allocating finite resources ” open-space or roads, the Sheriff’s Department or early childhood programs, bike paths or reserve funds. But regardless of which choices are made, this much remains certain, it is never in the best interest of taxpayers when elected officials consider them an “unlimited resource,” which is why the decision about Gates Ranch must be made judiciously.

Quote of the Day: “The man who pays an ounce of principle for a pound of popularity gets badly cheated.”

Butch Mazzuca is a business consultant and writes a biweekly column for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at

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