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Trustees look to survey for tax hike strategy

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The Cedaredge town administration and town board are trying to decide how the results of a "healthy lifestyles" survey can be pitched to voters as a proposal to increase the sales tax.

Results of the survey have been discussed at two recent trustee meetings where they were described as "interesting" and "disappointing."

It was evident from discussion at the trustees' June 11 work session and at the June 18 regular meeting that town officials did not get the mandate for raising taxes they were looking for.

At the work session, Mayor Pat Means said the results "are interesting to say the least." She also called them "disappointing." Other comments made during the meeting were "surprised me," and "maybe the people didn't understand."

The tabulated results of the survey present an eye-crossing grid of color coded numbers and percentages that fills an entire 8.5-inch by 11-inch sheet. They lend themselves to various interpretations. For example, one comment at the June 11 trustee work session was that the 330 responses strongly favor a tax increase if you ignore the 59.74 percent who oppose tax support for the golf course. (The majority of responses also oppose tax support for golf course capital spending, and they opposed taxes to pay for golf operations.)

At the June 11 work session, golf pro Larry Murphy had a positive reaction to the survey results. "This is what we need," he told town trustees, referring to the tax increase idea. "I'd like to give it a shot."

Murphy noted the annual public subsidies "in the $400,000 range" that Devil's Thumb has received for years. He also commented on a new Devil's Thumb cut-rate marketing plan designed to make Delta's course the low-price-golf leader. On a recent weekend, Devil's Thumb advertised a special -- 18 holes of golf plus a cart for $18.

The Cedaredge Golf Course has also received years of subsidies from town government, though smaller ones than for the Delta course. An anticipated $25,000 golf course revenue shortfall last year ballooned to $48,000. The loss was covered by the "sale" of water shares among town budget funds. The town's water utility account, where customers' monthly water bill payments go, transferred cash to the golf course in that deal.

The trustees discussed the survey results again at their June 18 regular meeting. Trustees are using the survey results as a template for crafting a tax increase ballot question that will try to match the survey results. Therefore, trustees want a ballot question worded to focus on "recreation," a general topic that received positive survey responses.

At the same time, trustees want a ballot question worded broadly, generally, and that is as non-specific as possible. Ballot questions must meet the minimum Constitutional requirements of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights Amendment (TABOR).

Town Administrator Katie Sickles advised using the same ballot language as was used for the 2007 street improvements tax question -- one which passed by 11 votes. She projected the text of a sample ballot question onto the screen for the trustees to view.

Trustee Larry Smith responded saying, "That's garbage."

Sickles replied, "Unfortunately, that's TABOR."

Currently, the town board lacks consensus on the issue. Means is pushing forward with the idea of a tax increase on the November ballot while noting, "Tax is a four-letter word." Trustee Nancy Sturgill has offered suggestions for wording the question.

On the other hand, Trustee Al Smith said, "I need to be convinced this needs to go on the ballot. The survey was disappointing." He expressed concern about the board "losing credibility" if a tax question fails and added, "I'm not saying I can't be convinced."

And, Larry Smith said, "I'd like to see what (the ballot question) looks like before making up my mind."

The survey, a one-page questionnaire, was sent to local residents in the spring along with utility billings. The survey had 22 separate questions grouped in four different categories. Each of the 22 questions had three possible responses, plus a fourth choice asking "would you support a 1/2 penny sales tax to support the programs?" in each category.

A majority of respondents (61.83 percent) favor tax support for two of the four categories of questions asked, respondents favored two of them for tax funding. They were "recreational programs" and a category that includes street projects like bicycle lanes and highway crossings: additional items listed in that category included sidewalks, pedestrian bridges, walking trails and "kiosks."

Respondents answered questions with a very general picture in mind, shown by the fact that throughout the entire survey not one of the specific activities or projects listed received a majority of favorable responses.

The survey sample population was not random nor scientific in any sense. Surveys were mailed to almost 1,300 utility customers along with their monthly bills. Responses totalled 330 at the time results were tallied and presented to the town board.

The questions were worded by town staff; the questionnaire format was developed in town hall; and analysis of the results is being left to administrative staff and the town board.

Strategy for a tax increase proposal was also discussed at some length by the trustees on July 18. The one element that is part of every tax increase proposal that goes before voters would be part of the pitch in Cedaredge, too - the promise that someone else is going to pay for it. If the idea moves forward, it will be on a theme of "community." The proposed sales tax increase would be paid by people who live outside the town limits and who use the town's free facilities, including parks, trustees noted. Of course, that same wider community also uses Orchard City's top rated regional Town Park that is located in a municipality which has no sales tax at all.

After all of the options, opinions and numbers had been sliced and diced, the town's survey comes to the bottom line: that 48.35 percent of the 330 respondents indicate favoring a recreation tax, and that 49.96 oppose a recreation tax. This one result would ultimately be the justification that trustees use for going with a tax increase question on the November ballot.

Administrator Sickles while allowing the overall result was close to 50/50 said, "All in all, most (survey respondents) said no tax."

Trustee Ray Hanson agrees with golf pro Murphy about just going for it. On the issue of waiting for a better time to float a tax hike proposal he said, "When is a good time?" Hanson asked rhetorically. "There is no good time" he said and added the idea has a 50/50 chance of passing anyway. And, Hanson said also, "The public have to educate themselves."

The town board is scheduled to discussed the tax increase question again at their July work session, and make a decision at their July 16 meeting whether to place it on the fall ballot.

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