The Aspen City Council would like to keep the extra money collected from tobacco taxes last year, but is undecided about how to spend it.
In 2017, voters approved new taxes and fees on tobacco products sold within the city limits. In accordance with state law, the ballot language used for the tax included a cap on the amount of revenue the tax could generate.
The voters approved the amount of $325,000, but the new tax brought in $436,622. According to Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, better known as TABOR, if the city wants to keep the extra $111,622 it will need voter approval.
On Tuesday, C.J. Oliver, the city’s environmental health and sustainability director, presented council with a proposal for spending the tobacco tax money, in partnership with the Aspen School District. The plan suggests forming an intergovernmental agreement with the school district to use the tobacco revenue to fund Aspen Family Connections, a school district program that serves as a hub for connecting children and parents to health resources.
Tom Heald, interim superintendent for the district, presented council with data taken from surveys of Aspen students that identifies risk factors pertaining to youth health.
Heald showed the council that the students filling out the survey indicated that they believed their parents and their community have a high acceptance of drug, alcohol and tobacco use.
“There’s a perception that the laws and norms are favorable to substance use,” Heald said.
He said the district only can do so much to influence youths during the hours they are in school.
“The other hours are in the hands of our community, and we have a community that — according to what our students are saying — doesn’t share those same values of always making the right choice at the right time. There are some mixed messages around favorable attitudes toward substance use and perceived availability,” he said.
The plan presented to council members allocates the tobacco tax funding to prevention initiatives.
“If you look at that continuum of services right now, the bulk of the time, money and energy goes into crisis intervention,” Oliver said before the meeting.
He said it’s hard to justify pulling funding away from critical crisis services.
“To me, that’s what this chunk of money represents, an opportunity to really pour some focus and intentionality around prevention without having a negative impact on what’s happening on a crisis intervention standpoint,” Oliver said.
Aspen Family Connections has resources to help local school district students, and also those who are homeschooled or recently graduated, along with their parents. Of the 105 families that AFC has assisted in 2019, 22 percent sought mental health resources for the parents. Another 24 percent of visits were for mental health assistance for youths.
“You can see that mental health really eats up the biggest chunk of the casework that we’ve done,” Heald said.
New programing through tobacco revenue could include parenting education, a youth advisory group and providing funding so that the current part-time mental health clinician position can become a full-time employee.
The clinician is provided to the schools through Mind Springs Health, and the council fully supported using the tobacco taxes to fund that position. Council members differed though, in the question of support for the entirety of the revenue going to AFC.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein said that Heald’s assessment of the community’s nonchalant attitude toward substance use signaled that adult programming is also needed.
“You see that the parents are perceived to have a higher tolerance for substance use. That just reinforced my idea that we should be targeting addiction in the adult population as well as the substance use and all of this should be focused not just on youth,” Hauenstein said.
Mayor Torre and Councilman Skippy Mesirow agreed with Hauenstein, citing the need to address mental health, suicide and substance use throughout the population.
“This is a town that consumes a lot of substances,” Mesirow said. He said the city’s culture helps to reinforce substance use as an element of the prosperous good life for which Aspen is known.
“How do you address the fact that you give that message in the school, but then the child walking down the walking mall (watches) four grown successful adults that are drunk midday on a Tuesday,” Mesirow said.
“I strongly disagree,” said Councilwoman Ann Mullins, who pushed for the plan as laid out by Oliver — to divert all of the tobacco revenue to the AFC.
She pointed to other lines in the city’s budget that help support Health and Human Services and area nonprofits that provide resources to adults. She said that AFC is the agency that is best equipped to hit the ground running with the influx of money.
She said a series of smaller grants given to multiple agencies would not have as great an impact. “If you split it up into a few other places it becomes not that much money,” Mullins said.
Rachel Richards, who is back on the city council after being term-limited as a Pitkin County commissioner, echoed that the work on the county level to address mental health is focused on adults.
“The thing that we need to bear in mind is that addiction and substance abuse are behavior choices, it’s not a one-year booster shot,” Richards said. “Working through the school district you can see sustained behavior change.”
The city does not have a way of calculating how much money the tobacco tax will continue to provide. A new ban on flavored tobacco products will cut down overall sales, but as other communities follow suit in raising the price of cigarettes, the incentive for customers to leave town to buy tobacco will also decrease.
TABOR only regulates the first year of excess funds. In the future the council can use the entirety of taxes collected as stipulated in the ballot language.
Council members directed staff to work on an intergovernmental agreement with the school district that would allocate a portion of the funding to AFC. At their next regular meeting they also will vote to approve ballot language requesting to retain the excess $111,622 to use for community health programming.
If voters do not pass the measure, the city then would then need to choose a method to return the funding to the public. Options include lowering the tobacco tax temporarily to even out the overpayment, a sales-tax refund to citizens or a temporary property tax decrease.