Runyon: Growth fuels your tax increases
Vail, CO Colorado
Money, money, money … sigh. I don’t know anyone who isn’t struggling to keep income ahead of expenses. So it is at the county. Like you, all of our costs have steadily gone up: gasoline, natural gas, electricity, water, cement (up 40 percent this past year alone), tires and wages. And, like you, as our family grows we have to continue to provide for all of the members. As I’m sure you’re aware, Eagle County is experiencing unprecedented growth.
In Eagle County, we are struggling under a complex interplay of dramatically increasing basic costs combined with a rapidly increasing population requiring services.
So let’s put this all in context of that nasty tax bill you just received.
After you pick yourself up off the floor, apply for a third job, and cancel your kid’s braces, take a closer look at your bill to see precisely where your hard-earned dollars are going. Let’s take a typical resident of Avon; call them Paul and Donna Wilson. Their total tax bill rose a whopping 35 percent, a little less than the county average of 42 percent, but significantly more than the 6 percent of the typical deed-restricted property owners.
The assessed value of their house increased a dramatic $236,000 over two years. For the past 20 years or so, most American homeowners have considered their houses as not only homes, but also their retirement investment. On this score, the Wilsons have done very well. On the other hand, their tax bill went from $2,555 to $3,458 ” almost $1,000! That’s a lot of unbudgeted money.
There are 10 taxing entities (voter-authorized “special districts” and governments) at the Wilsons’ doorstep demanding money. The breakdown of who gets what is in the table attached next to this column.
I won’t speak on behalf of the other valuable taxing districts. Suffice it to say that, while some of them reduced their taxes a nominal amount, they all had an increase. I’m sure they would all say that they kept the increase to pay for the ever-increasing demands of growth in all of its permutations.
Even though you write your check to the Eagle County Treasurer, the county only keeps 14.5 percent of your total tax bill. The balance is distributed, by law, to the various districts over which the county has no control. For the Wilsons, the county increase was $131 over the previous year. That’s about 36 cents a day. For this, the anti-government set has tried to tar the Eagle County commissioners as “tax and spend liberals.” Also, it should be noted that Eagle County’s property taxes are less than every other county in the State of Colorado except one, Pitkin County, where property values are dramatically higher than ours.
OK, so you add the Wilsons’ tax increase with mine (which, incidentally, increased a painful 46 percent), Commissioner Fisher’s, Commissioner Menconi’s and everyone else who pays property taxes in Eagle County (62 percent of all residential property is paid by second homeowners). The total increase in county general fund revenue is $4.5 million, or a little less than 5 percent of the total 2008 budget. That is hardly a windfall. So where is this money of ours going? In a word: growth.
Yes, growth comes at a cost beyond what we usually consider. Over the next couple of years the big issue will be our inadequate justice center. The State Constitution, in its infinite wisdom, demands that we provide an adequate jail and court facility. Because of growth, our 20-year-old facility is grossly out of date and is so overcrowded that we ship our prisoners to neighboring counties. This politically unpopular mandatory cost will be between $20 million and $25 million, which we intend to spread over 20 years. So, with interest, that will translate to about $2 million per year. On top of that, we need to staff this new facility to the probable tune of another half-million dollars a year.
There are a lot of reasons and blame to go around as to what has caused all of this growth. In the past, commissioners and towns did not adequately require growth to pay for all of its impacts. We are now dealing with those lapses. So, until we get a handle on growth, we can expect to see further “increases” or reduced services. We can’t have it both ways.
Traffic is getting worse. Do you want the county to deal with it? It takes money. Affordable housing is getting scarce. Do you want the county to deal with it? It takes money. Open space is getting more expensive. Do you want the county to deal with it? It takes money. Our trees are dying. Do you want the county to deal with it? It takes money.
So, my fellow taxpayers, the question is: Do we want our taxing entities to continue to provide the world-class services that are commensurate with our world-class community? Or, do we want to embark on a downward spiral in which your property values begin to drop as services decline?
We are extremely mindful that the county runs on your money. We continue to pare down the budget as close as possible. We also believe that, as a resort county, we need to hold out the ideal of being the model mountain community. Wisdom is finding that balance point that benefits the greatest number of our citizens.
Peter Runyon is an Eagle County commissioner.
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