Vail at a costly crossroads
Voters Tuesday can pump $2.25 million a year into the town’s bank account by raising their own property taxes. If homeowners approve Referendum 2C, town leaders pledge to use the extra cash to renovate and revitalize portions of Vail Village and Lionshead while private developers, such as Vail Resorts, are sprucing up their properties.
The concurrent redevelopment should jump-start the sputtering economy, proponents say.
“I see Vail Resorts and I see the Sonnenalp investing back into their properties here and that makes me as a resident really optimistic. I want to see us – the public – do the same,” says Vail homeowner Mark Gordon, who settled in the town three years ago with his wife Tracy.
He says he isn’t opposed to investing more money in the local economy – especially when private businesses are doing the same.
“I don’t want to turn away from that responsibility,” says the 38-year-old Gordon, who works for Vail Resorts. “We are a town and we have to do our part to work towards economic prosperity.”
But retired businessman Paul Rondeau, who has owned a home in Vail for 13 years, says he is troubled by the proposed tax increase because of what he calls the haste with which it was conceived and the lack of accountability built into it.
Additionally, he says, the Town Council hasn’t displayed enough financial frugality in this time of need.
“I think principles of financial stewardship need to be put in place at the outset of this road to renaissance,” he says. “Some of these private projects are way down the line and we don’t know when they will happen and what the town will do with the money we are asked to give them.”
If 2C passes, town leaders say, Vail would have the necessary wiggle room to move ahead with an aggressive $88 million, five-year redevelopment plan that would allow public property to be updated in concert with about $750 million in private redevelopment projects planned for Lionshead and Vail Village.
The town’s plan includes money for a heated and landscaped plaza around the Children’s Fountain in the Village and a new transportation center and skier drop-off facility in Lionshead. Money would also be set aside for a new or rebuilt fire station, to hire new firefighters and an upgrade to the 911-emergency system.
“Without the increase our part in this enormous capital improvement campaign is going to fall way short,” Vail Town Councilman Chuck Ogilby says. “We’ll just continue on the down-slide that we have been on.”
Vail’s sales tax collections began slackening six years ago to about $14 million annually. Since then the town has backed its budget into a tight corner, Vail Town Councilman Rod Slifer says.
“The town is 40 and it is getting a little ragged around the edges,” Slifer says. “We need to reinvest back into our infrastructure and we need the mill levy increase to do that.”
Lean times require bold moves, he adds.
“It’s always tough to ask voters for more money. It’s a tough sell every time you do that. This is a vote for Vail’s future. It really is. If we do this we can turn things around,” Slifer says. “It’s time to put the shine back on Vail. If we don’t polish our town, sales taxes will never come back up.”
But while town leaders insist that the money is direly needed and will be used wisely for the town’s benefit, Rondeau points out that the Town Council, after cutting $800,000 out of its 2003 operating budget, managed to contribute in excess of $1 million to charitable and marketing organizations.
Rondeau says he was particularly troubled when the council awarded $150,000 to the Vail Local Marketing District, which is funded by the town’s lodging tax at an annual $1.5 million.
“If people vote for this increase it sends the message to the council of “Why should they change their ways?'” Rondeau says. “They spend precious little time and thought and give away a total of $1.4 million.”
Voters should say “no” to the tax increase – for now, Rondeau says.
Instead, he adds, the town and the community need to come up with a clear project list, construction schedule and a funding package that is fair and equitable in how it distributes the burden of paying and gaining.
“It is not a do-nothing vote,” he says. “After the election we immediately go to work to get things more fair and more believable.”
Gordon says he is optimistic and trusts the instincts of established businesses associated with Vail. But the way the additional tax money is spent in 2003 will affect his vote next November when five of the seven council seats are up for election, he says.
“This town has a tendency to make decisions, then let them go and then abandon them,” Gordon says. “I want to see them make decisions and stick to them. I don’t completely trust the town government to have this money, but I think that can be addressed next November.”
Ogilby says Vail has arrived at a “mid-life crossroads” because the days of relying on bountiful sales taxes are numbered. Without new revenues, Vail will have a hard time luring people back to spend money, he says.
“The only thing we can do then is cut and it isn’t going to be pretty,” Ogilby says.
A 4-mill increase to Vail’s property tax rate (or $36 in new taxes per $100,000 in market value on residential properties and $108 for commercial properties). If approved by Vail voters, the town will use the estimated $2.25 million in annual additional revenues for additional firefighters and as seed-money to fund $88 million in upgrades to town infrastructure, including a rebuilt or new fire station, landscaping, heated walkways and pocket parks along pedestrian corridors in Lionshead and Vail Village.
The tax increase would take effect Jan. 1, 2003.
Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached
at (970) 949-0555, ext. 602 or at email@example.com.