Colorado River

The Colorado River District is proposing a property tax increase for the 15 counties it serves. On Tuesday, Pitkin County commissioners held a special meeting in which they passed a resolution opposing the tax. The proposal will be listed on the Nov. 3 ballot. 

Pitkin County commissioners voted 3-2 during a special meeting on Tuesday to oppose the Colorado River District’s proposed Nov. 3 ballot item that seeks to raise property taxes for the stated purpose of protecting Western Slope water security while funding projects to improve water use and healthy streams.

All five commissioners said that they, and the county government itself, are strong advocates of water protections. But all five – including Greg Poschman and Steve Child, who voted against the resolution – said they had issues with the language of what is called “Ballot Question 7A,” which will be posed to voters in 15 counties, including Pitkin. Commissioners Patti Clapper, Kelly McNicholas Kury and George Newman were in the majority, in effect opposing Poschman and Child’s calls for further study and a public hearing on the issue.

The decision to call a special meeting, a lack of information within the meeting packet, the content of the 50-minute discussion and the subsequent 3-2 decision in favor of opposing the proposed measure drew strong criticism from proponents of the district’s proposal, as well as district staff who have been working with member counties to provide information about how the tax revenue would be used. 

Pitkin County’s representative on the river district’s board, County Attorney John Ely, was the lone member who voted against placing the item on the fall ballot during a July 21 meeting, while representatives of the other 14 counties supported it.

Andy Mueller, executive director of the river district, sent an email to commissioners just after 8 p.m. Monday to voice his displeasure with the process.

“There are no documents associated with this item in your agenda packet available to the public,” the email says. “Even if this notice does meet the minimal requirements of the Colorado Open Meetings Law, it is clearly not drafted to give actual notice to the public of the matter your board intends to discuss.

“It has also come to my attention that there is a draft resolution circulating among [BOCC] members,” the email continues. “This draft resolution is not available to the public or contained within the documents posted on line for the work session into which this ‘Special Meeting’ is inserted.”

After the vote, Mueller told the Aspen Daily News that he and the district’s government affairs director tried over the last eight months to meet with commissioners to discuss the proposal. All of the other counties wanted the information, he said. A planned gathering in February was canceled. 

“There is a misunderstanding about the intentions of the Colorado River District and the working of our ballot information,” he said. 

Mueller said it is every county’s right to take a position for or against a regional or statewide proposal. His concern, he said, was that the public process was not honored.

“I’m not trying to influence their vote in terms of a positive or a negative, it’s more about the importance of good public communication and good governance,” he said. “I’m concerned that the process was railroaded without the opportunity to provide important public information to the elected officials of Pitkin County, and that’s a disservice to the voters of the county.”

Some commissioners said the ballot language was too vague, failing to state exactly how the monies would be used. Mueller addressed that point, saying that its language had to be kept short and simple because the Nov. 3 ballot is expected to be lengthy – it’s a presidential election year – and the item is likely to be placed near the end of the list of questions.

The district’s board itself has developed specific plans for how the revenue would be spent, he said. “If we put all the specifics into the ballot question, it would be very, very long,” he said.

A news release from the district states that its mill levy would increase by $1.90 per year per $100,000 of assessed value, raising an estimated $4.9 million annually throughout the 15 counties. “About $4.2 million would be dedicated to partnership projects across the district in one or more of the following five categories laid out in the plan: productive agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, conservation and efficiency,” the release says.

The balance, according to the release, would address budgetary reductions caused by the Gallagher and TABOR amendments. “No new staff positions would be created with the new funds,” the release adds.

Some commissioners pointed out that there have been disconnects between Pitkin County and the river district in the past. Mueller admitted that there have been issues between the two entities, but much of that was in the 1950s, when there were battles over Crystal River dam building and water rights.

“The district is committed to not doing that,” he said, referring to dam-building in the Crystal River Valley.

Matt Rice, Colorado River Basin director for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit American Rivers, pointed out that the river district’s ballot proposal has widespread and diverse support throughout the 15 counties – which include his organization’s 500 members in Pitkin County.

“Progressive and conservative counties have approved referring this measure to the people,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

Rice was critical of the staff decision to take the resolution to the BOCC without placing a draft of it in the meeting packet or inviting proponents to make their case.

“This is about the Colorado River, it’s not about Pitkin County,” he said. “The river has never been more at risk than it is now, whether it’s mountain diversions, drought, lower basin stage water, water speculators.”

The coalition of supporters not only includes 14 of the district’s 15 counties, but also numerous conservation organizations such as American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, Western Resource Advocates, Eagle River Watershed Council and Friends of the Yampah, Rice said. It also includes ranching and farming associations.

“It’s just Pitkin County that has chosen to be on the wrong side of the Colorado River here,” he said.

Ely said during Tuesday’s meeting that because the proposed resolution is considered “informal,” a public hearing is not required. It’s up to the board to decide whether to hold a hearing, he said.

Clapper asked Ely to clarify his role with the district’s board. Ely said he is a full participant in board matters and described what led to his decision in July.

“Quite frankly, I was looking for a way to support it,” he said. He said he wanted a general commitment as to how the funds would be allocated for various projects, but that was rejected by other board members.

“The implementation plan that the staff of the river district put together … I thought was a good idea, and if we could rely upon it, then that would be a way to put the tax question in a framework where it could be supported,” Ely said.

“But the opinion of the board collectively was not to refer to the implementation plan [in the ballot language] and not to be bound by it,” he continued. “I would say the majority opinion was such that they did not want to tie their hands to particular purposes, particular percentages of the proceeds of the tax revenue … and that the question should go forward as written.”

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.