Vail Daily editorial: ‘No’ on 1B
October 27, 2016
This fall's ballot in Eagle County will be either three or four sides of two large sheets of paper. When there's a lot to decide, as there is this year, it can be easy for some questions to slip by. Eagle County's ballot Issue 1B could be one of those items, since most of the attention this fall has gone to ballot questions regarding housing and school funding. But 1B deserves a close look.
At its heart, 1B is an extension of a county property tax dedicated to open space that was first approved — by fewer than 50 votes — in 2002. This year's ballot question would extend the expiration date of the tax by 15 years, from 2025 to 2040.
The ballot measure would also change how open space taxes are allocated. If approved this fall, 20 percent of the open space tax — about $4 million per year — would go toward completing the Eagle Valley Trail. That trail, from the top of Vail Pass to the eastern mouth of Glenwood Canyon, has been years in the making, with the most expensive 17 miles left to build. Estimates indicate that with the current level of funding, the trail could take another 40 years to complete. Adding open space money to the mix — especially if that money is used to back a revenue bond — could allow the county to complete the trail in seven years.
Taking on debt should always be a government's last resort for building projects. Debt is sometimes necessary to tackle projects that can't be done with a relative trickle of cash. New facilities such as schools, hospitals or even recreation centers are all appropriate uses for public debt.
Taking on the responsibility — and added expense — of public debt to complete a trail system doesn't seem to rise to the level of need presented by, say, a new jail.
Add to this the fact that the county seems to have conflicting priorities in its spending. The Eagle County commissioners this week talked about contributing $1.1 million in open space funds to help purchase a small parcel of land near the Walking Mountains Science Center.
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That property — near a town center and transit route— was originally zoned for more than 30 townhomes, and would seem to be a good location for workforce housing.
If county voters pass ballot Issue 1A — a .3 percent sales tax increase for housing — how often will conflicts arise between the desire for housing and the desire for open space? How will that affect prices for those parcels? It's unlikely that county departments would bid against each other for the same piece of land, but the jumbled priorities we saw in Eagle this week do raise questions about the appropriate stewardship of public money.
Then there's the matter of whether or not 1B constitutes a tax increase. While the property tax bills won't increase in 2026 if 1B is approved, those bills will decrease if 1B is defeated.
Open space in Eagle County is precious. Despite the original close vote to approve the tax in 2002, candidates in 2012 who ran for county office on promises to review and possibly repeal the tax were all defeated.
The county's open space efforts also seem to be well grounded these days. After spending too much to preserve private property in the early years of the tax, efforts in the past several years have gone toward purchasing land for public use. In fact, of the 23 parcels the county has put money toward since 2002, 18 have public access. The commissioners, with the help of the Eagle County Open Space Advisory Committee, have done very good work.
That said, taking on debt to finish a trail doesn't rise to the level of need we want to see when seeking funding for bond issues. And those who drafted the original tax proposal seemed to have the timing of the tax's expiration about right. Private land is scarce in the county, since we're surrounded by public lands.
The county would be better served finding other ways to finish its trails and come to the voters with a straightforward package to do so. The original open space tax should be left to expire as originally proposed.
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