Pitkin County commissioners voted in August to place a renewal of the county’s Healthy Community Fund on the Nov. 6 ballot, so it may not come as much of a shock that they officially endorsed the election item on Wednesday.
The 16-year-old fund assists health and social-service programs throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. It’s supported by a countywide property tax that was first approved by voters in 2002 and renewed in 2006 and 2011. The current tax expires at the end of this year and if voters don’t bless the renewal, crucial services provided by the county and more than 60 nonprofit agencies could be impacted.
During Wednesday’s regular meeting, Commissioner Steve Child pointed out that representatives of the nonprofits and other local citizens have flooded local newspapers with letters to the editor in support of the fund.
“This fund provides, for the nonprofits, seed money that enables them to continue to exist,” Child said. “The county’s senior services department gets a large percentage of its funding from this, and also our [public] health department. Those are things that we need to continue funding and if this should fail, heaven forbid, we would have to provide for those functions out of our general fund, and other things would suffer as a result.”
The tax would remain in place for nine years instead of the shorter periods for which it was approved previously. The tax rate would be set at .993 mills — a higher rate than before — generating an estimated $3.08 million annually.
During work sessions earlier this summer, commissioners heard from county human services staff about the need to place the item on the fall ballot at a higher millage rate to bring in an extra $750,000. Officials explained that the increase is necessary to cover the cost of growing state and local mandates to support access to services related to mental health, substance abuse, health care and senior citizen programs.
The tax increase amounts to about 32 percent above the $2.3 million in revenue the tax is expected to generate in 2018. In terms of actual cost to the taxpayer, the increase would be $1.74 per $100,000 in residential value, for a total of $7.15. On a home valued at $500,000, the annual bill would be an estimated $35.75. The cost on commercial properties would be $28.79 per $100,000 of value.
Nan Sundeen, director of the county’s Human Services Department, estimated that nonprofits receive about 70 percent of the revenue while the remaining 30 percent is spent by the county for its own health and social-service programs and to cover the operational costs of administering the grants.
Commissioner George Newman called the fund “one of the unique amenities” that Pitkin County citizens have provided to the community.
“It’s one of several things that make Pitkin County such a special place,” Newman said. “We’re the envy of many other counties when they hear that we have such a fund. We’re able to help so many different nonprofits, whether it’s issues dealing with children all the way to our seniors, from the environment to public health — it touches everybody in our community and throughout the valley.”
Commissioner Rachel Richards called the fund “an incredibly important program,” adding, “it does a lot more for any of us than we think.” She said the proposed increase in the millage rate is necessary because of increasing demand on nonprofits and the county for services.
“There is a slight increase from six years ago and that is because the agencies which help administer these great services throughout our community have seen a dramatic increase in demand. I think the old statistic was about 25,000 personal contacts for services in 2006 and last year it was over 55,000. Those are important metrics to take a look at.”
Richards suggested that the cost of living throughout the valley continues to rise but wages haven’t kept pace with the recent economic recovery.
“The demands that we’ve seen, particularly for increases in services surrounding mental health, substance abuse, suicide retention, domestic violence — which are indicators of stress on a society — have dramatically increased,” she said. “We’ve been taking steps, in a coordinated fashion, among all these agencies, to address this more completely and more fully.”
When a public-health or social-service program is successful, Richards noted, “You don’t see the results because you don’t see the damage. But the families and the children feel the results and the success.”
Commissioners also endorsed ballot item 7A, which would create a regional property tax to support the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. The tax proposal will be on ballots throughout RFTA’s service area from Aspen to New Castle.
The 2.65-mill tax would generate an estimated $9.5 million annually, if approved. At that rate, the tax would cost the owner of a home valued at $500,000 an estimated $81 per year.
Currently, RFTA receives its funds through local sales taxes, rider fares, service contracts and state and federal transportation grants. But local transit officials say income from those sources isn’t nearly enough to maintain and expand the system’s quality of service and replace an aging fleet of nearly 90 buses.
Newman, chairman of RFTA’s board, said the proposal represents the first property tax the transit agency has ever sought.
“Sales taxes, as we know, can be very volatile,” he said. “It’s very hard to do a long-range budget when you take into account how our sales taxes may be affected by local, national and international economies.”
Supporters of the initiative say a property tax would give RFTA a more stable income source to address long-term needs under the transit agency’s “Destination 2040” plan. In addition to paying for more environmentally friendly buses, the extra tax revenue would allow RFTA to expand bus service, provide more parking at transit stations, improve pedestrian safety at bus stops and support links to local bike-trail systems, officials have said.
Commissioners also passed a resolution opposing Amendment 74, a citizen-sponsored initiative on the statewide ballot “that would dramatically limit state and local government regulatory authority.”
If approved, Amendment 74 would require “just compensation” if the market value of private property is reduced through government law and regulation. A county staff memorandum to commissioners outlines concerns over the proposal:
- It would undermine the ability of governments to protect their interests in vital areas such as clean water and air, zoning enforcement and infrastructure improvements, the memo states.
- Under the state Constitution, a property owner already has the right to seek compensation from state or local governments. Amendment 74 “expands this well-established concept” by requiring the government to pay property owners for virtually any decrease in the fair market value of their property due to law or regulation, according to the memo.
- The language of the amendment is “extremely ambiguous,” the memo adds. “No one knows how this proposed expansion [of the law] could impact Colorado or local governments” but it is expected to leave governments with unprecedented levels of legal exposure.
“If this language were enacted, programs such as the county’s ability to conserve open spaces, preserve this region’s valued viewshed and implement design standards for the built environment would all be limited,” the memo says.