Saturday, June 6, 2020

Deal with the New Normal

The “New Normal” kind of sucks. The New Normal is the phrase experts are using lately to describe the financial situations of families, businesses and governments. It means people have to make do with less. It means the money pipeline is essentially shut off. It means it’s a lot harder out there right now.
Let’s look at one local example of this New Normal…

In a report to the Crested Butte Town Council, the town staff described the financial situation of the general capital budget as not “totally bleak” but not exactly heading in the right direction.
Town Manager Susan Parker said the bottom line is that the town is having a hard time keeping up with the costs of maintaining the “assets” they have. Assets are high-profile things like the Tommy V field, the Rainbow Park Pavilion, the Big Mine Ice Arena, and more low-key things like town printers, much of the park staff, street bricks, public restrooms and front-end loaders.

The bottom line is that it is easy to find grants and contributions to help buy the high-profile things. But the continuing costs to keep things nice and up-to-date get stretched tighter and tighter as those acquisitions need to be maintained. Maybe it’s a coat of paint, new grass or a Zamboni.
But maintained they must be if you want to stay with a quality product. Now, Crested Butte has done a really good job building up reserve funds during super busy and banner years with things like the Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT). Half that tax goes to maintenance in town; the other half is dedicated to open space. In the boom years, the RETT money rolled in like local bears to an open restaurant Dumpster. Now, not so much. That RETT revenue stream fluctuates a lot.

So, as far as Crested Butte might be concerned, at a recent budget work session the council members seemed to grasp the reality of this New Normal. In fact, at the end of the budget meeting at least a few mentioned the ‘T’ word to address the shifting situation. That’s right: it might take a new tax to help keep your community “assets” nice and keep the things you like operating.
We’re talking the parks in town; the pavilions; the ice rink; the ball fields; public bathrooms; and skate park. Not to mention the plows that move snow, the holiday decorations that keep Elk Avenue festive in December, or infrastructure for affordable housing.
The idea of considering a mill levy was actually mentioned by elected officials. It is too late to consider for this November’s election but if the council wants to lead, it is something to explore. I’m not a big fan of any more taxes but there are times to look at the reality of changing situations…of the New Normal, if you will.
Before advocating for any new tax, the council should delve into the details and impacts. Look at what it would mean to property owners to pay a small tax that might raise another $250,000 or $500,000 each year to pay for the things you like. They might discover that by eliminating some other current costs, the capital budget is better than it appears. But that is the research that can start now.
Then, if it makes sense for the future of the town, let’s see these elected representatives lead. Go out and sell the benefit of a new tariff to those who will feel the impacts and the benefits. It won’t be easy in this New Normal and the logic has to be there, but it might make the town a better place in the long run. And that’s what real leaders do…they make their communities better in the long run.
Like it or not, it is at least worth an honest look. It is something to be started soon, not at the last minute. We are looking at a New Normal…and it is something the council has to deal with.

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