Rec district wants trio of tax hikes
The ballot questions range from a tax increase to pay off a $3.4 million debt on the renovation of Dobson Arena to a $3.5 million bond issue to rebuild portions of the Vail Golf Course and create an indoor recreation facility at Red Sandstone elementary school. The third ballot question will ask voters to approve a $4 million bond issue for renovating the 35-year-old Vail Golf Clubhouse and Nordic Center. Combined the measures would increase residential property taxes $15 per $100,000 of assessed valuation.
It has the potential of becoming a skirmish between the two elected boards because the recreation district’s ballot questions could hamper the town’s efforts to seek a tax increase to build a fire station in West Vail, among other projects new being considered.
Representatives of the two boards held a hasty meeting Monday afternoon to discuss the district’s proposed election. Town representatives asked the rec board to wait until November to go to the voters. For the semi-estranged boards, the meeting was both cordial and frosty, showing both signs of cooperation and a lingering divide over each group’s projects.
“What if this doesn’t solve the problem?” Councilman Kent Logan asked of the ballot proposals.
“There’s no guarantee Lionshead (renovation) will work either,” replied rec board member Peter Cook.
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Town representatives said they’d be more comfortable with a more comprehensive, joint town and district election in November while unmeniotned by the both boards is the fact they’re competing for the same property tax revenue.
The district, facing declining revenues and with no reserves in its $4.3 million budget, said it needs to do the project immediately to halt a revenue slide in an increasingly competitive golf environment.
“If we don’t reinvest in (the golf course) we’re in trouble,” Cook said
Golf revenue has declined from $1.4 million in 1999 to just over $700,000 last year, with much of the decline attributed to a lack of destination golfers, Cook said.
Adding urgency to deliberations of the district is a deadline. To get the tax increases on the May ballot, the district has to decide its course of action before March 10.
“We haven’t found common ground,” Logan said. “We’re looking for a cooperative, comprehensive approach.”
Logan also said if the district’s proposals are approved in May the golf course will be opening in the midst of nearly $500 million in renovation in Vail and Lionshead, an extensive construction project that is expected to deter visitors.
Complicating the already sensitive issue is the fact that the town owns the golf course and leases it to the district. The recreation district, Cook said, has deferred doing capital improvements for three years, as it waited for town projects to cycle through.
Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler and others within the town are hoping the district’s renovations and improvements can be wrapped into larger ballot issues that will be part of the comprehensive Vail Renaissance, which, over the next five years, will include $1 billion in redevelopment of public and private buildings in Vail, Lionshead and elsewhere.
Both boards face squeezed budgets.
Some in town hall expressed concern about the pace of the district’s proposal. “Things are moving a little too quickly,” Zemler said prior to Monday’s meeting.
“I have lots of concerns,” Councilman Dick Cleveland added. “The golf course is our property and they’re talking about doing remodeling on our property and they haven’t talked to us yet. We’re at a loss as to what direction that board’s taking.”
Julie Hansen, chairwoman of the Vail Recreation District board, who did not attend Monday’s meeting, said earlier that the recreation district is simply asking voters if they are willing to pay for the projects.
“I think (the town thinks) we’re an arm of the town,” Hansen said. “We’re not trying to shove anything down anyone’s throat.”
What’s it going to cost?
If all three issues are approved by voters, the owner of a $1 million golf-course home would see a tax increase of $140 per year, said Hansen. The existing tax for the district costs that same homeowner nearly $219 a year, according to the assessor’s office.
The tax increase is an attempt by the cash-strapped recreation district to create some financial operating leeway, and also to upgrade some of its facilities. New fire and safety codes that mandated the renovation of Dobson Arena in 2001 – along with the expense of upgrading the ice rink’s refrigeration system – cost more than anticipated and the district was forced to pay the $280,000-a-year bond payments from operating revenue, said Hansen.
The golf course greens and irrigation and drainage systems need renovation to keep up with other courses in the area, said Dennis Stein, executive director of the district. The Eagle River portion of Eagle County has 14 golf courses.
The price of a round of golf has decreased in recent years to $90 at the Vail facility. And last year the district hosted 24,068 rounds of golf – down 7 percent from 2002, a trend that’s widespread in the golfing world. IN 1999 the golf coursehosted 30,000 rounds.
“The golf industry as a whole has been experiencing a 5 to 20 percent decline in rounds annually. Everyone is fighting for rounds,” he said. “We have a golf course that does not have USGA greens and has some irrigation and drainage needs. Normal wear and tear would warrant replacement”
If this ballot amendment is approved, it will take the golf course out of service for the 2005 season. Part of the funding, $700,000, would be used to offset the loss of money the course would suffer during construction.
Renovating the clubhouse would resolve persistent plumbing, electrical and disabled-accessibility problems, Stein said.
“With its proximity to I-70, the building could act as a billboard,” he said. “That will help the whole local economy.”
Despite the cooperation expressed at the public meeting, the town and district aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on all things. One of the issues is the rent the district pays the town for the golf course.
“We pay $100,000 a year to lease the golf course,” Hansen said. “That takes recreation tax and transfers it to the town. That’s taxing taxpayers twice. That asset’s been paid for.”
The Vail Recreation District was split from the town in early 1990s to ensure recreational matters didn’t take a back seat to other town budget issues. Over the years the scope of services the district has provided has increased from golf and tennis to more activities.
The pool of voters – several thousand for this election – is larger than a typical municipal election because it includes owners of second homes in Vail who are state residents.
Since 1966 the Vail’s recreation department has shifted alternately from the town to an independent recreation district twice. In 1993 voters approved transferring recreation duties and property taxes to the Vail Recreation District.
Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.