A “social capital” group being spearheaded by, among others, ex-Basalt mayor Rick Stevens is gaining serious traction.
Now named the Basalt Area Community Fund, the group was conceived last month at least partially as a potential repository for money donated by property owners who will be receiving rebate checks from town government. Those checks are paybacks for four years when the town overcharged property owners in violation of the amendment to the state constitution known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, better known as TABOR.
According to Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney, the refund checks — totaling about $2 million — will be cut later this month and into early October.
Stevens would like to see Basalt’s TABOR debacle result in some beneficial outcomes for the community.
“The idea is to create an entity that would be able to receive donations from people, businesses, property owners, whoever gets a refund, and we would put it into this community chest or social capital fund to use for beneficial purposes,” said Stevens, who served as Basalt’s mayor for a decade and as a town council member for four years. “We have some commitments from individuals.
“We’ve talked to some businesses who think this is a good idea,” he continued. “We’re talking to major property owners that are going to get refunds. I have had a couple people already tell me they’re interested in putting their refund money in.”
The plan, Stevens said, is for whatever money the community fund might collect to then be allocated to various midvalley nonprofit groups, such as those involved in child care, education, arts and culture, mental health and crisis mitigation.
How that would actually transpire is yet to be determined, as the group is still in its nascent stage.
Stevens so far has gained some influential local supporters, including Tim Belinski, developer of Willits Town Center, and Basalt Town Council members Auden Schendler and Bill Infante.
“You could involve citizens in the decision-making process so that the people feel they are more directly involved in how tax dollars are spent,” Schendler said last month of Stevens’ idea. “This is a fund that asks: ‘What do we care about right now?’ I plan to wholeheartedly support this effort. My refund is already dedicated to the fund, and we’re looking for others in the community to make that commitment, for larger organizations to join and to create something really positive and forward looking and community building out of what could have been just a big negative.”
In addition to formalizing its name, the community fund has issued a mission statement and has met with the influential Aspen Community Foundation in hopes of establishing a working relationship with that entity.
“It took a little convincing to get the Aspen Community Foundation interested,” Stevens said. “They wanted to know why this issue is so contentious. When I first approached them, they thought we were being ‘agro’ instead of thinking about the community. They reflected on this effort as being part of the contentiousness. But they seem to have come around a bit.”
The goal, he said, would be to have the foundation collect and hold whatever money is collected by the fund and to lend its considerable expertise to the fledgling group.
Decisions about how to disperse those funds, however, would remain with the fund.
Stevens also has managed to get Basalt town government to soften what last month seemed to be a stance against his social capital committee idea.
As of mid-July, town officials were talking about establishing their own fund; those receiving TABOR refund checks could essentially give that money back to the town with the idea it would be used for specific community-benefiting purposes.
“Our current thinking is that we would provide an opportunity for taxpayers to return their refund checks to the town to be placed in a restricted account,” Mahoney said last month when told of Steven’s plan to establish a social capital committee.
“These funds could be directed by the individual to go toward certain initiatives,” Mahoney said. “We would likely identify a handful, such as child care, wildfire mitigation or affordable housing. The monies received would need to be spent specifically on those items and would be accounted for and reported to the community.
“It is possible that there may be an ad hoc group that could provide direction to council on the expenditure, but we have not had that discussion yet,” he continued. “The town already has committees that relate to child care and affordable housing, as an example. Not sure re-inventing the wheel on those is the best use of our resources.”
Mahoney pointed out that Basalt town government already puts money into the very causes outlined by Stevens.
Stevens, Jim Light and a representative from the Aspen Community Foundation recently met with Mahoney.
As a result, “The town council has decided to stay neutral on providing direction to refund recipients regarding where to spend the funds,” Mahoney said. “This includes the option to refund the money to the town, as well as the social capital fund idea. I met with Rick, Jim and the Aspen Community Foundation last Friday and learned more about their plan. It could be an interesting idea for the midvalley community and I’ll look forward to seeing how the details evolve over the coming months.”
While Mahoney’s statement isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, it’s less oppositional than the town’s stance a few weeks ago.
According to a Sept. 3 letter from Light and Stevens to Mahoney, Schendler and Infante, the goals of the community fund consist of six points, including leveraging contributions to make significant impacts on the Basalt area, encouraging active involvement by taxpayers and other citizens in making positive impacts on the community and building “on the town’s brand as the home of extraordinary and successful nonprofits in education, the environment and the arts.”
Next steps, according to Stevens, include establishing a plan for dispersal of the initial funds, setting up a campaign committee to formulate and communicate the group’s requests to the taxpayers who are going to receive a TABOR refund and establishing a “field of interest” program with the foundation, which would allow contributions to be tax deductible.
He said he also plans to get with representatives of the many nonprofit groups headquartered in the Basalt area to get input on how they would like to see the community fund organized.
Stevens said that local nonprofit groups go through an annual budget-season stress fest as they apply to the town government for funds allocated to the community. The availability of those funds, he said, varies from year to year and are subject to whatever political winds might be blowing through town hall.
As it stands, nonprofits end up essentially fighting against each other for whatever available money the town might have in a given year.
Stevens hopes to address that situation by including members of the area’s nonprofit community onto the Basalt Area Community Fund board of directors.
“Right now, those funds are dispersed by the town once a year,” he said. “We’re looking at more of a live foundation where we may have a grant period or may not have a grant period. We may process requests as needs arise.”
Stevens envisions a system in which whatever town money is available to the nonprofit sector during Basalt’s annual budget cycle gets turned over directly to the community fund.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Stevens said. “But this is doable. There are at least two other communities in the state that have similar programs, including Fort Collins. We will be looking at what they do. Sure, there’s going to be some opposition to this. There’s going to be some negativity.”
But he is of the opinion that the premise of his group is strong enough that it will overcome whatever opposition the concept might face.
“Existing established entities will be welcome and encouraged to become engaged in this effort,” Stevens said. “The fund will strive to increase opportunities and collaboration in all our efforts to the end that everyone wins.”