Public speaks to Parks and Rec sales tax increase
Written by Mark Reaman   
Wednesday, 14 May 2014
Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die…

A small but engaged group attended the first public meeting discussing the town of Crested Butte’s idea to ask voters to approve a half percent increase in the sales tax to help fund parks maintenance. By the end of the two-and-a-half hour meeting on Thursday, May 8, even the most adamant initial opponents were wondering if .5 percent was going to be enough.

 

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Director of Parks, Recreation, Open Space and Trails Jake Jones led the meeting and gave the group a thorough background of how the tax increase idea floated to the top of the alternatives. His statistics show the parks facilities and the recreation programs growing significantly since 2008, while the money and staff to run and maintain them have been stagnant.
“Our aim has been to get as many kids involved at the lowest possible price and provide quality programs,” he said. “We’ve done that.”
“So you are acting like a business in that you are trying to draw more customers,” said local retailer Ethan Hicks. “But the clients aren’t just coming from inside the boundaries of Crested Butte.”
According to town figures, about 60 percent of people using the parks and recreation programs live outside of town in the Upper East River Valley.
Resident Todd Carroll asked if it was possible to tweak the real estate transfer tax (RETT) to shift some of the monies dedicated to open space outside of town to open space, such as parks, located inside of town. The 3 percent RETT brings in about $900,000 a year but half of that is dedicated to open space and the other half to town capital projects. Park maintenance eats up about $370,000 of the $450,000 dedicated to all town capital projects.
Jones explained that under the state constitution, RETTs are no longer allowed, so tweaking the RETT could put the entire tax in jeopardy. Thus the town staff feels that adjusting the tax is not an option.
Jones said the department is trying to shift some programs into the club arena and that could happen with hockey this year. But the town would still have to maintain the ice rink and other facilities.
Hicks expressed some dismay that when the past town councils approved major facilities like the ice rink, they apparently did not realistically take into account how to pay for long-term maintenance.
“I don’t think anyone expected the programs to grow as fast as they have,” said Lauren Alkire, town recreation manager. “Look at how fast the school is growing. It seems like they just built a whole new facility and it is already busting at the seams.”
Hicks advocated for looking closer at a regional mill levy, given the regional makeup of the park users. Carroll said he thought there was no way such a regional property tax would pass.
Hicks suggested giving voters a choice of mixing options. “Do something to raise some revenue, cut back slightly on services, put in a small increase in fees. Give the voters some options,” he said. “Plus, putting this out there in the off-season doesn’t help. No one is around.”
“We’re not trying to cram a sales tax down the public’s throat,” said Todd Crossett, town manager. “We’re trying to take the public’s temperature on the idea.”
Hicks reiterated his concern that any increase in sales tax raises the cost of goods in town and hurts local retail businesses. “When you raise the sales tax, you make the businesses in that realm uncompetitive. The common paradigm used to be that if a town needed money, it was okay to raise taxes. But that doesn’t work anymore with the Internet. An extra $8.50 on $100 matters. That’s coming up to $300 on a $3,000 mountain bike. It hurts and it matters. The Internet makes a real difference. Why not tax services like lawyers and chiropractors? It would bring in a lot of money and only be a small tax on those guys.”
Lois Rozman, town finance director, indicated the state does not allow for the taxing of such services.
“Let’s be clear that this isn’t a done deal,” said Jones. “The council has two, maybe three, solid supporters of this but the council is by no means 100 percent in favor of this sales tax route. They have to decide whether it goes to the ballot and then the voters have the ultimate decision.”
“We need to take care of the big picture,” said Skyland citizen and longtime recreationist Dave McGuire. “This is an obvious route to go and it addresses the regional aspect.”
“Is it enough?” asked area resident Jen Faivre. “Does this look forward or just keep things the same? If we grow again will this half percent address it?”
“The RETT has been very flat. Sales tax by nature will grow as we grow,” said Jones.
Councilperson Jim Schmidt reminded everyone that the last town sales tax was passed in 1979 when voters approved a 1 percent tax for transportation. “It funds Mountain Express and the rate has stayed the same but the amount of money it brings in has grown and paid for the bus system even as it has grown. It has served the town well. As the community grows, the sales tax revenue will grow, even if the rate remains the same.”
This point seemed to sway Hicks. “If this move is going to pay for maintenance for a long time and you don’t come back in three years asking for another increase, I can like it. I understand it more if it will be there and address the problem for the duration,” he said.
“The community wants way more than we can provide,” said Jones. “This money will be going specifically to parks. It won’t bring enough to add more shiny things to the system. This doesn’t get us refrigeration for the rink or a turf soccer field, for example.”
“I’m in favor of the sales tax but I admit I’d like more things like locker rooms at the ice rink and the improvements to the Eighth Street pedestrian walkway,” said Carroll.
Jones said that statewide, sales tax increases have about a 50-50 chance of being approved by the voters.
“Is the half percent enough?” asked McGuire.
“Learning what I have tonight, I’m for it, if—and it’s a big if—it will do what it is supposed to do,” said Hicks. “No nickel and diming and coming back in a few years talking about another funding problem with parks. I’m actually starting to worry you might be coming in too low.”
Total sales tax at a town retail shop is 8.5 percent. “Raising it to 9 is real. Do we have the stomach to go over 9 percent?” asked Jones.
“I feel the half percent just keeps us where we are,” said Faivre. “Are we being shortsighted and just trying to tread
water?”
“It’s on the conservative side,” admitted Jones. “But another thing it does is provide the seed capital for grants we can use to obtain more of the things we need.”
“Maybe ask the council to contemplate a .75 percent increase,” suggested Carroll.
“Ask the council and the voters for the number it will really take to do the job. That’s how it works in business,” said Hicks.
“The half percent is in the mode of the past decisions by Crested Butte. It’s conservative and rational,” said Jones. “It will bring in about $280,000 and we anticipate it to grow with growth to maybe $500,000 a year eventually. It is a significant help.”
“I don’t think going up to 1 percent is make or break,” said McGuire. “There will be some that vote against any sales tax increase, whether it’s 1 percent or 2 percent. But I don’t want to wait another 20 years to see locker rooms at the ice rink. Let’s take care of it and get it done.”
“It seems obvious we need to do something,” added Crested Butte South resident Janna Hansen. “The parks and the amenities like the flower boxes don’t just impact the locals but also the tourists and it’s tourism that pays for a lot of the things we enjoy here. So this isn’t just a parks and rec issue, it’s a tourism and overall economy issue.”
“The reality is that to close the financial gap we are seeing, we need to raise revenues or cut expenses,” concluded Jones. “The community needs to understand the context of the request to raise the tax. No one wants to pay more in taxes but no one certainly wants to see a reduction in the parks and big cuts to our services.”
“Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die,” Hicks concluded on the Jones conclusion.