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What it takes to run a county

Alex Miller

It’s a rare animal indeed that shares its food willingly. On the human level, it may explain why most people are reluctant to part with money – especially in the form of taxes. Given our druthers, we’d like it very much if we could get all the municipal services we need without having to pay much for them. And some of us would prefer all of that money be administered and applied to those services without the pesky presence of anything resembling a government.

If, however, we simply must part with tax dollars, we would prefer that most if not all of those dollars be spent on things we personally agree with. I, for example, would love to see our half-trillion-dollar annual defense budget trimmed to about a quarter of that, with the savings going toward fixing America’s domestic problems rather than protecting against the non-existent armies not poised on our border. I also hate to pay for parking, but that’s another story.

In Eagle County lately, it’s been tough to parse exactly what people want, and the county commissioners are feeling the heat. Blame for the recent steep hike in property taxes is being largely heaped at the feet of the county and the commissioners, even though only about 14 percent of the total tax bill goes to the county. This oft-repeated fact from the commissioners goes largely unheard as the torch-and-pitchfork mob tramples over them. It is, in some ways, a disingenuous argument, because it’s still a lot of money, and the commissioners could have chosen to lower the mill levy to decrease the burden.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt Eagle County is growing, and that it takes more money to run a more populous county with more buildings, roads, etc. One estimate I heard recently is that it will take some $500 million over the next 20 years just to maintain all the roads in Eagle County. And that’s without extras like an additional I-70 interchange at Edwards or for the airport. The commissioners and county staff are also absolutely correct when they point out that a new Justice Center must be built, and the money has to come from somewhere. Some argue it should be put to a vote, but if the state mandates your county build a new jail and the people say no, what’s a county to do? Sometimes, a community simply has to take its medicine, which is why we have elected representatives to make those decisions ” and elections to replace them if we disagree.

While I don’t doubt there are areas where Eagle County government could trim in more places if it really wanted to, the other side of the coin is that we live in an affluent county where we expect a certain level of service. More than anything, people complain about roads in disrepair, and they happen to be just about the spendiest thing in the world to keep up with. The early childhood and other social programs the county funds ” and which the county’s biggest critics despise most ” are a drop in the bucket compared to the infrastructure price tags.

The critics, as well as the two Republicans running for commissioner seats, advocate more “responsible” government and say they would cut taxes. Easy enough to say, but it’ll be interesting to see how those arguments hold up when they’re confronted with the actual problems and dollars and have to decide where cuts should go. Not heard from much are the people who actually benefit from these programs ” including children too young to speak. Is that the kind of county we want, where vital services are taken away so homeowners can realize a small reduction in their property tax bill?

The level of community uproar over property taxes is understandable, and, in the messy business of democracy, it will likely have an effect to the benefit of taxpayers.

But before raising that pitchfork or voting for the program-cutting tax hawk, do some homework, go to some county meetings and get an idea of what the real situation on the ground is. While you’re at it, think about what kind of place you’ve chosen to live in and what kind of future investment you think the community ought to make in itself.

Some may wind up having to allow facts get in the way of their argument.

Alex Miller is responsible for the editorial oversight of the Vail Daily, Eagle Valley Enterprise and Vail Trail. He can be reached at 748-2920, or editor@vaildaily.com.


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