Seniors get first quarter million dollars
by Mark Reaman
There will be at least one tax issue for voters to decide on this November in most of the county. The Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) will ask voters to approve an across-the-district one percent sales tax to fund air and bus programs. The RTA district does not include precincts in Pitkin, Ohio City or Somerset.
If approved, the one percent tax is expected to bring in $1.25 million in 2016. The first $250,000 raised each year by the new tax would be earmarked for the county’s senior transportation program.
RTA tax issue consultant David Flaherty of Magellan Strategies Inc. reported to the board at its July 10 meeting that a survey conducted by the company shows that 52 percent of the respondents would vote for such a tax. While 5 percent said they were undecided, 43 percent were against a tax increase.
“Based on the survey, I feel good about this,” Flaherty said. “When we really get out and tell the story of the RTA and the challenges it has fiscally, I think that 52 percent number will go up.”
In his demographic breakdown, Flaherty said young eligible voters were strong supporters of the RTA, probably because many of them use the free bus service between Gunnison and Mt. Crested Butte. He said the RTA needs to reach out to voters 65 years old and older since they tend to be more reliable voters than the young demographic. Allocating the first $250,000 to senior transportation, he said, should help get that group on board.
Currently the RTA sales tax is 0.6 percent in Crested Butte, Mt. Crested Butte and most of Gunnison County. It is 0.35 percent in the city of Gunnison. When the tax was originally passed, the perception was that the north end of the valley would see most of the RTA benefits since it was focused on expanding and funding airline programs. But now that extensive bus service is part of the organization, the idea is that voters in Gunnison will see the benefit of equalizing the tax and support the proposed tax increase.
“I believe if you move forward this will pass with an educational campaign between now and November to explain why the RTA needs the money,” Flaherty said.
RTA board member Aaron Huckstep asked if the idea to raise the sales tax by a uniform number, but not equalize the tax, had been considered.
RTA chair Paula Swenson responded that the idea had been considered but with the senior transportation element being focused primarily in Gunnison, the need for bus replacements, and the desire to fund more than one airline guarantee per winter made equalization make the most sense. “To get where we want to be, we need the equalization aspect. The education part is key,” she said.
Flaherty said getting the Western State Colorado University students to come out and vote for the proposal would be necessary; that is where some work would be targeted before November.
Gunnison mayor and RTA board member Richard Hagen said the City Council has discussed the idea among themselves and with constituents, and has received no feedback at all on the idea of equalization.
“I think we have great potential with education to build up the numbers in Gunnison,” added RTA board member Leia Morrison.
“The air program and the airport has a $170 million economic impact to the whole valley,” added Swenson. “The more we get out, the better. It is a valley-wide issue. It is a tourism issue. It is a workforce issue. It is a senior issue. I have no doubt this can pass across the valley.”
“Timing is everything,” said board member Danny D’Aquila. “I hate to lose some service (see related story on page 14) in the shoulder season and then ask for money to expand service.”
“That’s a good point but with new funding, it might be possible to fill in that shoulder season service with an option to Dallas or Houston,” responded RTA air consultant Kent Myers.
Swenson said the idea of a sales tax increase was more amenable to many people, including some of the most conservative people she knows, over a request to increase property taxes.
The RTA sales tax would not apply to groceries or fuel.
“If we expand air service, that will bring more people in and that could impact workforce housing,” said Huckstep.
“Prices will no doubt get higher at the north end of the valley,” said Swenson. “Realistically, more people will be living at the south end of the valley. This is where the buses come in.”
“We just need to be aware of all the interrelated issues,” said Huckstep.
“This increase in money would more likely keep us from contracting the air program as opposed to expanding it,” said RTA executive director Scott Truex.
The board voted unanimously to proceed with a fall ballot issue asking voters to increase the sales tax.
The notification of intent to place an issue on the ballot must be to the county clerk by July 24.