Pitkin County mulls open space buys versus tax relief
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
SPEN – What to do with a $3.5 million property tax windfall in Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails Program vexed county commissioners Tuesday. They are expected to tackle the issue again Wednesday.
With Commissioner Patti Clapper absent, commissioners George Newman and Rachel Richards favored foregoing some, but not all, of the windfall. But Commissioner Michael Owsley argued the county should keep the revenues and continue adding to the county’s open space and trails legacy while land prices are down and trail construction is cheaper.
Commissioner Jack Hatfield advocated foregoing all of the additional money except what would be allowed under state taxation limits (from which the program has been exempted by voters), to acknowledge the difficult economic times many locals are facing.
The Open Space and Trails Board was divided over what to do with the windfall during budget deliberations last month, but recommended Tuesday that the county retain the money.
“The bottom line is, it’s a tough call,” said Hawk Greenway, Open Space and Trails Board chairman, told commissioners. “The open space board is hugely relieved that it’s your call, not our call.”
There are, Greenway added, “incredible opportunities” among the potential acquisitions currently on the table for the program.
Dale Will, program director, said he will brief commissioners on what potential deals are out there during a closed-door session at the close of their regular meeting Wednesday, after which, commissioners may settle on next year’s mill levy for the program.
Will did, however, hint at two potential acquisitions – a 35-acre parcel at the base of Smuggler Mountain that is the focus of a development application and the Droste family land above the Brush Creek Valley, where commissioners approved a nine-lot development last August.
The Droste property “has come back in our direction with interest from neighbors,” Will said.
“There are a lot of people hoping that those development approvals that were granted don’t happen,” he said after the meeting.
The open space program’s levy of 3.75 mills generated $10.4 million in revenues this year. That sum would jump to about $14 million next year unless the levy is adjusted downward.
Limiting additional revenue to what’s permitted under the state Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR, would mean the program takes in about $10.7 million next year. That would translate to a savings of $69 per $1 million of actual valuation for a residential property owner in the county, according to Tom Oken, county treasurer.
The program does have $20 million in bonding, or borrowing capacity, approved by voters in 2006, Will noted. The open space board has been reluctant to borrow money for its purchases, though, because the cost of carrying the debt is significant and comes out of the annual property tax revenues.
“It doesn’t matter to me what projects are on the table,” Hatfield said, urging commissioners to lower the program’s mill levy and leave the windfall in taxpayers’ pockets. “We need to show the public we’re sensitive to what’s going on.”
County commissioners made a point of prodding other special taxing districts to lower their mill levies in light of the huge jump in property values that came with the latest reassessments by the county assessor’s office, Newman noted.
“We need to walk our talk,” he said, though he voiced support for an option that retains some of the windfall, as did Richards. Commissioner Michael Owsley said his property tax bill currently includes about $800 for county open space and trails – a number that will jump by roughly $200 if the mill levy is left intact.
“On a personal level, I can agree with Jack. The idea of taxing myself more is a tough thing to do,” Owsley said. “On the other hand, I want more open space, I want more trails, so what are you going to do?”
The county rarely has the upper hand in its battle with the real estate/development industry for the acquisition of property, Owsley noted.
He said he didn’t want to pass up an open space opportunity in order to pocket $200.
Though commissioners have yet to formally approve the Open Space and Trails Program budget, they did endorse the addition of two full-time employees and two half-time seasonal workers – one in the summer and one in the winter – as part of the program’s spending plan. Only Hatfield objected to all of the positions, advocating the two seasonal workers and one of the full-time posts for 2010.