Between a rock and a sweet spot with town sales tax dilemma

It’s still a little early for the town of Crested Butte to be panicking about its budget situation. There are a few ballots yet to be counted that might turn the sales tax proposal defeat into a win—the current two-vote difference might change by the end of this week. And there could be a recount in December given the closeness of the result.

The staff and council had a work session this past Monday and claimed to have heard a message sent by voters. “Whether it was 2 votes or 300 votes, it is the same,” said some. “We asked a question and got an answer and we’ll abide by that answer,” said others. “We heard the message,” mentioned another.
And then they spent the evening discussing how to cut back on flowers that liven up Elk Avenue during the summer without degrading the streetscape.
I’m actually not sure what the message was since the vote was virtually tied. But I doubt the message was to get rid of bright flowers on Elk in June.

Take a breath, everyone.
A two-vote difference is honestly a lot different from a 300-vote difference. With a bit more effort by say, a councilman, two people could probably have been convinced to change their vote, with a reasonable argument.
The budget is not crashing tomorrow. At the end of this year and next, there will be millions of dollars in the town reserves, and that is admirable and prudent.
The voters didn’t send a message that the town is wasting money by livening up Elk Avenue with its flower program.
There seems to be confusion on whether the staff should have been pushing the issue or the council. The answer is: The council. Voting is a political deal and staff is actually prohibited from campaigning. Nevertheless, there wasn’t much of a campaign by anyone. Whatever.
Because the quiet mantra seemed to be that this increase in sales tax was earmarked for parks (which everyone loves), people I talked to said they got the message that it was to fund “wants” like ice rink refrigeration and campgrounds, as opposed to “needs” like plows and needed heating systems for town buildings.

In the end, the council seems to have gotten the message from staff that the town departments have been running extremely lean for the last four or five years, and they have been cobbling together skinny budgets without affecting the quality of town services. That time is coming to an end because of deferred maintenance.
The staff is emphasizing that the council can no longer put off buying dump trucks to pay for more holiday lights. The heating systems in some town buildings need to be replaced. The staff is issuing a long-term warning—that the attitudes of the recent past cannot continue in the town budget process. But right now, some citizens see sales tax increasing exponentially and Bud Light throwing the community a half million bucks and want to know why a new tax is needed. It’s like being squeezed between a rock and a sweet spot.

No one on the Town Council will say they made the ultimate effort to win the passage of the November 4 tax issue. While Crested Butte is growing quickly, it is still a small town and voters want to hear face-to-face why the elected representatives are asking for a tax increase.
If the council sets up a new election in a year as suggested by councilman Jim Schmidt, they should be able to honestly explain the need for a tax. It should not be hard for those on the council to make the case for the necessity to buy equipment and fund projects that keep a good town running. Crested Butte needs dump trucks to haul snow (hopefully). Crested Butte needs to keep its staff and tenants warm, and children should be safe on the playground.
Honestly, saving $30,000 isn’t the problem or the answer.

The council should maybe also take a final look at the proposed 2015 budget and five-year plan and make a few tweaks to address the situation in the short term. I spent 15 minutes looking at a spreadsheet and had some thoughts. The first is that it is not a bad precedent to spend some of the increase in sales tax revenues on things like the flower program. Sales tax is the foundation of the budget. If you get more, use it in places that act like an investment in the business district—such as the Elk Avenue flower program.
Do the marshals need five new patrol cars over the next six years? Maybe, but that seems pretty flush. (I love picking on the marshals. It’s a really smart move.)
Should someone flying in here to spend six figures on their kids’ wedding get the town wedding venues at basically the same rate as the cost of the monogrammed napkins? No. Renting Big Mine Arena for a summer reception at $750 for a three-day weekend ($300 for one day) is a screaming deal. I understand it’s not Uley’s and needs special attention but one wedding professional in town said that rate was “insane” and should be closer to $1,500 or $2,000 a day.
Supporting and subsidizing local non-profits through cheap rent in town buildings is legitimate but maybe it is time to take it up a small notch if the budget crunch is moving into critical status.

And then if a new tax is needed to keep Crested Butte pretty and functioning at the high level we’ve grown accustomed to, bring back the tax request next November during the Town Council election. It could be a real campaign issue. Sharpening the pencil one more time would add credibility. There is certainly a big picture budget issue with the town and its situation where new facilities and services have come on line with no steady revenue source to fund their care.
Eliminating flowers and bike racks might make citizens see some cutbacks that send a scolding message to 392 voters; however, that is not really the answer or really the right path.

—Mark Reaman

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