The Aspen Education Foundation hasn’t formally asked either Pitkin County or Snowmass Village elected officials to back a .35 percent sales tax, but the nonprofit is hoping a poll conducted last week will show that at least city of Aspen voters will be willing to pass the increase.
AEF representatives and school district officials went before Aspen City Council two weeks ago, asking it to place on the November ballot a sales tax increase question that would generate roughly $1.75 million annually, if voters approve.
Robin Hamill, then interim director of the AEF, which is the school district’s nonprofit fundraising arm, told council that elected officials in Pitkin County and Snowmass Village have expressed their disinterest in carrying the burden and posing a countywide sales tax increase to voters.
But AEF representatives haven’t gone before county commissioners or the Snowmass Village Town Council asking for formal support. Hamill said he spoke with Commissioner George Newman and a Snowmass Town Council member he declined to identify. He said based on their comments to him, he didn’t think AEF could win support for a countywide sales tax.
While Aspen council members directed City Attorney Jim True to draft ballot language, they expressed reservations on a city sales tax hike because it won’t be an equitable burden if it’s not applied across the entire county.
They asked Hamill to go back to the county and ask for support.
Hamill said the results of a phone poll conducted last week that gauged voters’ appetite for a tax hike, as well as to see if it would be supported countywide, will determine the AEF’s next move. The results are expected to be known this week.
“We are not going to do much of anything until we get the results of that poll,” he said.
Hamill said he expects to receive favorable results from the poll, particularly because Proposition 103, a statewide education funding increase, passed here by a 2-to-1 ratio. It failed statewide last November.
A countywide sales tax increase would capture not only revenue in the city but also Snowmass Village and the Airport Business Center. It’s unclear whether a citizen-initiated petition can be presented for a sales tax initiative on a county ballot.
County Attorney John Ely said he hasn’t researched the issue and likely won’t until he’s asked by the AEF or the commissioners. Hamill said his organization hasn’t delved into the question either.
“We don’t want to go there yet,” he said.
Newman said Hamill called him in the exploratory stage of the sales tax increase proposal.
“I expressed my concern about countywide,” Newman said.
He said he hasn’t brought the issue to the rest of the board.
Newman added that some parts of Pitkin County include the Roaring Fork School District, which encompasses schools in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood, and a sales tax increase places an undue burden on residents in that district. And, RE-1 district voters just raised property taxes on themselves last year, Newman noted.
“How do you distribute those funds fairly?” he asked. “It just seemed like a problem dealing with those districts and schools. ... I just don’t think it’s the right way to go.”
Snowmass Village Mayor Bill Boineau last week said he hasn’t spoken to representatives from AEF or the school district, and the tax proposal hasn’t been discussed by the Town Council. But he said he’s against a countywide sales tax hike, and said the Aspen School District should be funded by property taxes. He noted that sales taxes in Snowmass Village already are 10.4 percent.
The district has cut $2.4 million from its budget in the last three years, due largely to state funding cuts. As those cuts are expected to continue, the district is facing annual budget shortfalls of several hundred thousand dollars for years to come. Cutting teachers and programs will be necessary, school officials have warned, if funding continues to fall.
Newman said revenue from the sales tax hike is just a band-aid on the lack of statewide funding for education.