Region’s voters pass a few tax increases

Brief by Central Staff

Politics – December 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Region’s Voters Pass a Few Tax Increases

ODD-YEAR ELECTIONS in Colorado are catchalls — school boards, city councils and mayors, bond questions, and local tax rates appear on various ballots.

Mainstream pundits may argue that Americans are totally opposed to raising their own taxes, but that wasn’t the case in Central Colorado, where several tax increases were approved by voters.

Park County passed two tax increases, both dedicated to fighting water-export schemes. A 1% sales tax, with proceeds going to the water wars, won 2,352 to 946, and a new water conservancy district — which means an additional mill of property tax — was approved 2,735-1,601.

The current threat to the South Platte’s headwaters comes from the Front Range city of Aurora, which proposes to use a South Park aquifer as a sort of savings-bank. The plan is about as welcome as the flu in Park County, and its voters have now agreed to finance a court fight, much as San Luis Valley residents did several years ago in their successful battle against AWDI.

And the county seat, Fairplay, passed its own 1% sales-tax increase for street improvement. We were kind of surprised at that, since everybody there seems to have a rugged four-wheel-drive capable of handling Mosquito Pass, let alone mere alley rocks and holes, but perhaps growth has been bringing in more conventional vehicles.

A tax increase also narrowly passed, 1,647-1,585, in the school district; the additional 6.55 mills will go to a new $7.3-million middle school to be built just east of the high-school campus.

This was the district’s third or fourth try at a middle school — our guess is that it passed this time because the school board decided to build it in town, where kids could walk to it. Despite how things work in the suburban majority of America, “parent” and “chauffeur” do not need to be synonyms.

Chaffee County had a huge turnout, 74%, and turned down a proposed 100-bed jail, and its associated 2% use tax, by a substantial margin: 3,164-1979. The outcome was somewhat surprising, since there was no organized opposition to the jail, while there was considerable organized support, including all the media except us. Sheriff Ron Bergmann says he’ll go back to the drawing board, and “come up with something better.”

In Salida, Ralph “RT” Taylor ousted incumbent mayor Nancy Sanger 808-667; other candidates were Rick Tekancic, owner of the Crossroads Café, 323 votes, and Leslie Walker, a locomotive engineer, 160.

Sanger’s re-election margin was narrow in 1995, and this time around, she had a lot of baggage: expensive $800 water meters when other towns are spending $200, a proposed master plan that the public mostly hated while she steadfastly endorsed it, a host of unpopular and oppressive ordinances she supported, and some intemperate public outbursts. And, quite galling to those of us who remember Richard Nixon, she kept saying there was a “silent majority” behind her.

Most of the city council turned over in the election, with only John Bayuk remaining from the current group. New councilors include Sue Potts, Richard Heitman, Jaime Lewis, Monika Grisenbenbeck, and Glen Saari.

Two school bonds went down in Lake County by 2-1 margins. One, for $1.825 million, would have replaced the leaking roof at the intermediate school and upgraded wiring throughout the district. The second, for $1.89 million, would have remodeled West Park Elementary to accommodate third- and fourth-grade students.

Leadville has trouble passing school bonds for two reasons. One is that many district voters aren’t happy with their quality, as indicated by low test scores and high drop-out rates, and the other is that property taxes are already quite high in Lake County.

Back in the Shining Times, Climax Molybdenum paid 85% of the county’s property taxes, which meant plenty of money for schools, and local governments established a tax structure that relied heavily on the mill levy. But with that mine mothballed, it’s not much of a revenue source these days.

Meanwhile, Lake County houses hundreds of seasonal employees for the resorts of Summit and Eagle counties; the children go to school in Leadville, but the employers’ property taxes go to other districts.

That puts Leadville between a rock and a hard place, and no good solutions loom. Revenue-sharing with the rich counties has been proposed — and torpedoed by the legislature.

Increasing commerce could improve sales-tax revenues, but that means either going after tourism in a major way, and thereby ruining much of the area’s authentic historic character, or becoming a retail center, tough when the town is between the I-70 sacrifice zone with its big stores and outlet malls to the north, and to the south, the Salida Super Wal-Mart. A resurgence in mining might help, but mines need rail transport, and the death watch is on for that line.

It’s sad and ironic that Leadville, which produced so many great fortunes, so desperately needs money now.

Back to the election. Colorado politics has produced a unique eponymic verb, “to debruce,” which comes from Doug Bruce of Colorado Springs. He pushed a constitutional amendment limiting government spending, but local governments can vote to opt out — that is, to “debruce.”

Such measures generally passed in Central Colorado. Our respite from politicking is brief, since 1998 brings a general election. And one election could come sooner than next November — recall petitions are now circulating against all three Park County commissioners.