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Open space tax rallies for victory

When hordes of conventioneers start streaming into town to use Vail’s new conference center in 2005, they’ll see lots of open space on their way in from the airport.Following a count of 373 provisional ballots and 12 absentee ballots this week, the Eagle County Clerk and Recorder’s Office declared both county-wide Referendum 1H, an open space property tax increase, and Vail Referendum 2D, a tax for a new conference center, winners in the Nov. 5 general election.Only 16 provisional ballots were disallowed, and a canvas board certified the results as official Thursday morning, Nov. 14.”I can start breathing again, and I’m overjoyed,” Vail’s Tom Steinberg says of the open space tax, which trailed by two votes before the tallying of the provisional ballots. “I figured that with the provisional ballots, most of them are locals and younger people, and all of our polling indicated those are the people who would vote for it. So I was holding my breath and hoping. I think long term we’ll all be happy we did this.”Referendum 1H, raises property taxes county-wide by 1.5 percent for the purchase of open space. That amounts to about $14 on every $100,000 of assessed property value.After election night, 1H was trailing 5,456 to 5,454. The final count was 5,658 yes votes to 5,607, meaning 204 of the provisional ballots were cast in favor of the measure, with 151 voting against it.Steinberg, a former council member and Vail’s first doctor, was instrumental in passing a Real Estate Transfer Tax for the purchase of open space in Vail 20 years ago, and he was a major backer of the county-wide push this time around.”In my mind that’s one of the reasons Vail is so sellable, and I’m hoping this will help with the county. I’m overwhelmed that Basalt supported us,” Steinberg says, referring to the town in the Roaring Fork Valley that’s tucked into a corner of Eagle County. “That put us over.”Asked why he thought Basalt supported the tax, and whether Aspen-area voters are more enlightened, Steinberg says, “First of all the newspaper over there supported it, whereas your competitor here came out against it.”In Vail, Referendum 2D’s passage by a final tally of 851 to 807 means construction will start on a $46 million, 50,000-square-foot facility on the six-acre Vail Resorts maintenance site in Lionshead beginning next year. The center is supposed to open in the spring of 2005, and is being billed as a boost to Vail’s lagging retail and lodging communities, particularly during the off-season months.”It’s going to be huge,” Antlers at Vail general manager Rob LeVine says of the new facility, “but it depends on how you spell huge. This is going to put a significant dent in our economic problems, but it’s not going to solve them all.”Referendum 2D was leading by a slim margin of 804 to 781 on election night, and picked up 47 more yes votes and 26 more no votes after the provisional ballots were counted, boosting its final margin of victory to 44 votes. The center will be paid for with 1.5 percent lodging tax increase coupled with a half-percent increase in sales tax, excluding groceries.Provisional ballots are new this year in Colorado and are filled out at the polling place by someone who thinks they should be registered to vote but isn’t on the list. There were 388 provisional ballots cast in Eagle County.Vail voters rejected a 4 percent property tax increase designed to offset growing operational costs in the town. Referendum 2C appeared to be on its way to defeat with 52 percent of the votes cast in the no column on election day, or 819 to 758. It picked up a few votes in the provisional count, but still lost 851 to 796.”It is a little bit (bittersweet),” LeVine says of 2D’s win and 2C’s failure. “The conference center will clearly bring more people to Vail, but once they get here, if the facilities and the infrastructure are not up to snuff, we’re not going capitalize on that because they’re not as likely to return.”He urged 2C supporters to try again, noting the ballot was crowded with other tax increases and that many supporters of 2C were too focused on the conference center vote.”It took us three tries with the conference center,” says LeVine. “Hopefully it won’t take them 20 years (to pass a mill levy increase).”Not all Lionshead business operators are thrilled with the passage of the conference center tax hike.”I didn’t speak out, but I was never in favor of it,” says Bill Jewitt, a Vail Town Council member and owner of Bart and Yeti’s bar and restaurant. “I don’t anticipate a large up-tick in business.” He says he’s also concerned the town just bought itself a white elephant.”I’m afraid we’re going to end up with something like the parking structures or Dobson (Ice Arena), and it will need major renovations in a few years and we just won’t have the money,” Jewitt says. “I hope I’m wrong.”One other race affecting Eagle County voters that was still up in the air pending the provisional ballot count was the State House of Representatives District 56 contest between Leadville Democrat Carl Miller, the incumbent, and local Republican Heather Lemon of Eagle-Vail. Lemon won Eagle County decisively, picking up another 165 provisional votes to Miller’s 134, for a total of 5,518 to 3,933. Unofficially, Miller won the statewide contest 9,992 votes to 9,682 for Lemon.


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