Paving the way for a tax increase proposal this November
By Toni Todd & Mark Reaman
Two of the four government entities that contribute money to the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority—the Gunnison County commissioners and Mt. Crested Butte Town Council—agreed this week to a new intergovernmental agreement (IGA) that adjusts contribution amounts to the housing organization. It also paves the way for a property tax measure that would ask taxpayers to add another 1.5 mills for affordable housing projects. That request looks to be heading to this November’s ballot.
The Board of Gunnison County Commissioners (BOCC) approved the IGA Tuesday afternoon with the GVRHA, committing more money than expected by pledging to continue the current allocation of $93,500. If ratified by the town of Crested Butte and the city of Gunnison, the other three entities will each be contributing $58,750 annually by 2021.
“Looks like our contribution will stay the same,” said commissioner Phil Chamberland at the BOCC meeting.
County manager Matthew Birnie told the Crested Butte News in July that the county currently contributes “$93,500 in direct general fund support, along with $38,000 in various fees for service, for an annual total of $131,500, all of which funds their operations in some way.”
By contrast, Crested Butte paid about $53,000 last year. Mt. Crested Butte donated $38,500, and Gunnison kicked in $48,000.
At town meetings last month to discuss and eventually sign the IGA, some Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte councilmembers were uneasy about what they believed was an unfair division of the contribution pie, with the county expected to lower its contribution significantly to the same $58,750. They signed on anyway, but it seemed unfair to them that the county would lower its commitment while everyone else was expected to increase theirs.
“Our intention was never for us to pay less,” said Birnie. “Our intention was to get everyone else to pay more. I’d hoped everyone else would come up to that… We just wanted it in the IGA to show everyone that this isn’t just a county organization.”
“I think this memorializes the idea that we are all equal partners in the IGA,” said commissioner John Messner.
Equal, but the county will continue to pay more than the municipalities, at least for now.
“It’s not the Gunnison County Housing Authority,” said Chamberland. “It’s the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority.”
Mt. Crested Butte councilmember Janet Farmer was not at last month’s meeting where the increase in Mt. Crested Butte’s contribution was discussed. Tuesday evening, August 15, she asked why Mt. Crested Butte, with the smallest population and smallest budget, was paying the same as everyone else and taking a larger percentage hit from the town budget.
“These are funds that are used to keep the lights on. It keeps the housing authority operating,” explained Mt. Crested Butte mayor Todd Barnes. “The effort was made by former county commissioner and former interim housing authority director Paula Swenson for everyone to pay the same. I am hoping with this increase in contribution from us that we will see more benefits. Seasonally in Mt. Crested Butte we are seeing a real struggle with affordable housing. I think this was an effort to be fair and I think we will see more bang for our buck.”
“Also, when you look at where the employees in the valley work, it impacts Mt. Crested Butte,” added town manager Joe Fitzpatrick. “It is a positive way to say we all in the valley support the housing authority.”
Community development director Carlos Velado had said previously several potential affordable housing projects were in the hopper for the town. “We don’t want to be asking for the most and pay the least,” he said. “Like Joe said, we will see tangible benefits from this.”
The council voted unanimously to approve the IGA.
The council then discussed the idea of supporting the authority putting a 1.5 mill tax on real and personal property before voters this fall. Housing authority director Jennifer Kermode explained that all four entities needed to support putting the measure on the ballot to proceed. “This resolution doesn’t say whether you support the ballot measure, just that you support the housing authority putting it on the ballot,” she explained.
Barnes asked what the tax increase would cost residents and businesses. Kermode said for each $100,000 in valuation, a residential property owner would pay $10.36, while a business property owner would be charged $40.56.
Mt. Crested Butte councilman and Crested Butte Fire Protection District board member Ken Lodovico said the fire district was looking at 3.5 mill property tax increase for the district this fall as well. What, he asked, was the “pitch” for the housing authority?
Kermode didn’t have a ready answer, saying that the board was “still developing the points.” She did say that the tax increase would bring in about $900,000 per year and that money would go to leverage potential grants and loans for building projects in the county.
“In order for businesses to keep their doors open, they need to attract and retain employees,” Kermode said. “Attracting people here is easy but if they can’t find a place to live comfortably, they will go away. Our goal is to reduce employee turnover.”
Farmer asked if the authority had conducted a voter survey. Kermode said people polled were initially split about supporting the tax increase but after being informed about the situation, that split became 53 percent supporting the idea and 46 remaining against it. “It is very close and will require an educational campaign,” Kermode said.
Velado is the Mt. Crested Butte representative to the housing authority board and when that board voted on whether to pursue a ballot initiative in November, he and county commissioner Messner voted against it.
“My reasoning was that we had been discussing a lodging tax and then found out in June that the state wouldn’t permit it,” Velado told the council. “I felt, given the time constraints, we didn’t have enough time to put a good ballot measure together. It was about the timing.”
Velado said he remembered the polling results being even tighter and thus didn’t “have confidence we were giving it the best chance to succeed in 2017. I think we could come up with a better alternative in 2018.”
“It is definitely the eleventh hour but I like the challenge,” responded Barnes. “If it does nothing else, it gauges where we are at. We want to put people in houses and apartments and this will help. While we don’t have a specific plan right now I think [Kermode] can get us one.”
Farmer questioned the expense of the ballot issue if confidence wasn’t high for its passage and they’d have to do it again in 2018. Barnes said the housing authority had the funds to continue.
“I just don’t know if two months is enough time,” said Farmer.
“If we put it out there for eight months that might be too much time and people would get tired of hearing about it,” said councilman Bill Thompson. “Plus there might be more tax issues in 2018.”
“I think it is worth it to strike while it’s hot,” said Barnes, who also said if the measure passes money could be collected starting in 2018 instead of two years from now.
“Next year there could be a proposed tax from the school and the state might put a gas tax idea out there,” said councilman David O’Reilly. “I think this is the time to go.”
“My restaurant [the Avalanche] is closed tonight in part because I don’t have enough employees,” said Barnes. “All businesses are struggling with this. This has the potential for something.”
“Education from the housing authority will be the key,” emphasized O’Reilly.
The council agreed 7-0 to support the idea of the housing authority moving ahead with the tax proposal for November. The other entities will have to weigh in by early September.