There was no shortage of opinions at the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s board meeting Thursday to discuss whether a new regional property tax is the proper course of action to support the transit system’s future needs.
Carbondale resident Richard Pitre advocated for adjusting bus fares upward, based on inflation, instead of creating a new tax. Paul Menter, also of Carbondale, said he was “on the fence,” but suggested that RFTA officials and board members consider a higher tax rate than the one proposed if they believed it necessary and justifiable.
Aspenite Alex Brough spoke of midvalley-to-upvalley public-transportation fares that he believes are already too high. Another Carbondale resident, Larry Ballenger, pointed out that he and his family don’t ride buses at all and that he would have a hard time absorbing another property tax.
The four men, along with a few other area residents, made their feelings known about RFTA’s proposed 2.65-mill regional property tax, which transit system officials contend is the best way to cope with future demands related to expected population growth across the valley. In the end, after 2.5 hours of discussion, the board voted unanimously to place the tax question on the Nov. 6 ballot. Given that Colorado allows ballots to be mailed in, voting is expected to begin in mid-October.
The transit-system board consists of eight elected officials representing municipalities and counties within RFTA’s service area from Aspen to New Castle. George Newman, a Pitkin County commissioner, serves as chairman.
During the meeting, some board members questioned whether 2.65 mills would generate enough money. Aspen Councilwoman Ann Mullins noted that she and her peers had expressed support in the spring for 3.65 mills, the figure RFTA originally proposed. Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney, Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler and Carbondale Mayor Dan Richardson also said they could support a higher rate than 2.65 mills, and there was a lengthy and technical discussion about a possible move to 2.85 mills.
Perhaps, they said, a rate slightly higher than 2.65 mills would offset concerns about the “debt service coverage ratio,” a benchmark used to measure an entity’s ability to produce enough cash to cover payments on debt for items such as capital projects and lease arrangements.
But, just before the 8-0 vote, Newman described the two years of conversations surrounding a special regional tax for RFTA as being “long, tedious, hard” – not only at the board level but among the local governments within RFTA’s service area. He suggested the board move forward with approving the ballot question without further delay.
“This is a watershed decision, I believe, for the future of RFTA,” Newman said. “The question is, will RFTA not only be able to maintain its current level of services, but will it be able to meet the growing demand as our population grows? And will we be able to look at extending our service to those who need it? Without this ability to go before the voters, to ask for a mill levy to address these issues, it’s not going to happen.”
The point also was made by Michael Kinsley, who served as a Pitkin County commissioner from 1975-’85. He chimed in during one of the meeting’s two public-comment periods to say that “growth is expensive. And what you’re talking about is paying for the cost of growth.”
The ballot item would be put to voters in Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and New Castle, as well as unincorporated Pitkin County and the section of unincorporated Eagle County that lies within the midvalley section of the Roaring Fork Valley. Estimates show that the 2.65-mill tax would equate to $81 per year per $500,000 of assessed residential property value. Commercially, at $1 million of assessed value, the bill would be an estimated $768 annually.
The tax, which would generate an estimated $9.5 million annually, is the linchpin of Destination 2040, RFTA’s planning effort for the next 20 years of improvements, which will include replacing the lion’s share of RFTA’s 90-bus fleet, upgrading park-and-ride stations and pedestrian crossings, and partnering with other government entities on projects linking bus access to bike and pedestrian trails.
In addition, RFTA wants to replace about one-third of its fleet with electric buses. Other buses that run on diesel fuel and compressed natural gas would be replaced by vehicles with newer and cleaner engine technologies.
RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship has said that state demographers predict population increases between 2017 and 2050 of 65 percent in Garfield County, 29 percent in Pitkin County and 64 percent in Eagle County. RFTA is accessible to much of Garfield, most of Pitkin and the midvalley section of Eagle County.
“We need to be thinking down the road, and we need to be prepared for the growth that is coming at us,” he told the Aspen Daily News on Wednesday. “What we’re requesting are funds to improve our services, to expand our maintenance capabilities, to be able to attract workers by providing affordable housing for them, and to do things to make our services more attractive and convenient for people. We want to set ourselves up to have the resources to make sure everything is maintained at a high standard, not a lavish standard, but a high standard.”
During a presentation by RFTA officials and consultants early in the meeting, Bill Ray of WR Communications Inc., a Denver-based public affairs consultancy, spoke of the extensive public outreach RFTA has conducted regarding projects and services and the voters’ appetite to address them through a property tax.
Ray said two scientific polls in June, and a more recent unscientific survey in July, have been conducted to gauge voter support. As RFTA officials have increasingly worked to spread their message about future demands and the need for more revenue, the surveys have suggested a corresponding rise in support.
“To know RFTA 2040 is to like it better,” Ray said.
A July “mailer” sent to more than 16,500 residences included a six-question survey, he said. A total of 561 surveys were completed and returned via online or hard-copy by Wednesday.
In that most recent survey, 53 percent expressed support for placing a tax item on the fall ballot, while 34 percent were opposed, Ray said. Thirteen percent were undecided.
That compares to 44 percent approval and 43 percent disapproval in the first June poll, Ray added.
Looking at support by locale, using zip codes, in the July responses, Ray found support the greatest support, compared with the percentage of negative responses, to be in Aspen, unincorporated Pitkin County, Snowmass Village, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and New Castle. The gap between positive and negative feedback on the ballot “test” was closer in Basalt and Old Snowmass.
All five respondents from Woody Creek were against a property-tax proposal, Ray added.