The new Basalt Area Gives social-capital group has grown in the past month from being a glimmer in the eye of ex-Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens and long-time resident Jim Light to entering the digital age. As of Monday, BAG has a Facebook page and a website, both constructed by Jon Fox-Rubin, a Roaring Fork Valley native who has a long history of involvement with nonprofit groups in the area.
Fox-Rubin and Bennett Bramson, a broker with Aspen Snowmass Sotheby’s International Realty, will serve as co-administrators of the Facebook page.
“We talked to a bunch of people who said, ‘look, you don’t have a lot of time to build a real campaign. You need to do something fast,’” Fox-Rubin said. “We’re not going to do yard signs, because the TABOR people are going to use yard signs and we don’t want to confuse people that this is a town or a political thing. Besides, I was the only one of the original gang that had a Facebook account.”
Some orientation is necessary.
The reason Fox-Rubin referred to needing “to do something fast” is that BAG is looking to be funded first and foremost by refund checks being issued by the Basalt town government to property owners who were inadvertently overcharged over the course of the last four years on their property tax bills in violation of Colorado’s citizen-initiated Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), which was added to the state Constitution in 1992.
The Basalt town government, with a new finance director and town attorney, discovered the mistake last November and, after a series of public forums and the issuance of a community survey, decided to refund the over-collected tax to people who still own property in Basalt. Those who sold their property in the last four years are SOL.
The refund checks are scheduled to be issued by the end of the month. And BAG’s organizers are counting on recipients of those refund checks to donate them to BAG, which then plans to use those funds to aid local nonprofit entities. BAG organizers want to get the word out before those checks disappear into the abyss of domestic or household budgets, never to be seen again.
The town will distribute checks totaling about $2.1 million.
At this point, Basalt town officials estimate that a house now valued at $1 million would receive a refund of about $1,000, while a business property valued at $1 million would receive about $4,000.
BAG organizers hope to raise $1 million, which means that fully half of the TABOR refund distributed by Basalt would have to be donated.
Time is therefore of the essence.
And the reason Fox-Rubin made reference to the yard signs being deployed by the “TABOR people” is that, on Nov. 5, Basalt will conduct an election centered upon the town’s property tax mill levy, which had been operating at illegal levels for years.
In 1994, two years after TABOR was enacted, Basalt voters approved a property tax mill levy rate of 6.151. Almost immediately, given the increase of real estate values in town, that rate was lowered, finally bottoming out at 2.56 mills in 2010. As real estate values struggled to recover from the Great Recession, Basalt was forced to gradually raise the mill levy to meet its basic operating costs. By so doing, the town ran afoul of TABOR’s fine print, which states unambiguously that all tax increases must pass electoral muster.
The current mill levy rate is 5.957. The town is asking Basalt voters to approve that as the mill levy from now on. If the vote fails, the mill levy will revert to 2.56, costing the town an estimated $700,000 in annual tax revenue.
Thus far, BAG has logged about $51,000 in pledges.
Its mission, according to the website Fox-Rubin launched Monday evening, is “to invest — via a coordinated giving effort — in the nonprofits and social capital entities that support and enrich the quality of life in the Basalt area community.
“Property owners, businesses, governments, and individuals are planning to act together by giving to the nonprofits that support the Basalt area community,” the website continues. “Some have pledged to donate their entire tax refund amount (or more), while others (e.g., not in the town limits, renters, etc.) are planning to participate as well. If you are a Basalt property owner, you will receive your tax refund in late October, according to the Town of Basalt. With substantial participation, this coordinated giving campaign could create a sustainable funding stream that would be a lasting legacy for our community. The recognition of the greater community needs and the collective efforts of community members working together will enhance the livability and help maintain the ‘small town character’ of the Basalt area.”
Fox-Rubin said, “I got involved because I was approached by Jim Light and Rick Stevens, who asked if I would meet with them on this idea.
“It resonated so well with me. We’ve got to approach a lot of property owners in the next month or so to give them this crazy idea, where we ask, ‘if you can afford it, can you give all or some of this found money back to the nonprofit community that serves us?’ This would give a short-term shot in the arm to your favorite nonprofit. If you think longer term, throw money into the fund at the Community Foundation. This will build a big chunk of change there. It can endure and the impact can multiply over time. That’s the other long-term strategy … can we make this an annual thing? Can we make philanthropy in Basalt something we all do collectively? We could run an event in the future, a fundraiser, and see who, through this process, gets engaged.”
Some further explanation is necessary.
The BAG fundraising effort has two components, one in which donors can earmark their refund checks to the Aspen Community Foundation, which is helping out with all this, or to a specific nonprofit entity or category.
It sounds more complicated than it is. Both the BAG Facebook page and website Fox-Rubin set up have easy-to-navigate prompts that help donors direct their funds.
“Because I don’t love Facebook, I decided to make the web page for those not Facebook savvy,” said Fox-Rubin, who stressed that BAG is open to donations from any human or any entity, not just those receiving TABOR refund checks from the Basalt town government.
“The site also has a list of founders,” he said. “We’re calling founders anyone willing to donate substantially all of their refund back to the nonprofit. Or someone who doesn’t live in the town limits who wants to donate. People are only listed as founder if they want to be. That helps us build name recognition.”
“I researched and met with key people involved in the Basalt Area Gives initiative before committing to support it,” Bramson said. “As a resident of Basalt, who has worked in town for more than a decade and lived here for the past five years, I have committed to making both a financial and volunteer contribution to support the effort. I do feel that a private-sector organization, led by a group of non-partisan citizens, like myself, with nothing to gain personally, and offering residents a viable choice with their refund — or other contributions if they choose — will be the preferable path to take, and with the least resistance.
“People can, of course, choose not to support the effort, keep their refund, or use it as they otherwise determine, but this effort offers them a wonderful opportunity to join with fellow citizens in supporting area nonprofits,” he continued.
Bramson said he understands that not everything in Basalt right now amounts to a community-wide kumbaya moment. He knows full well that BAG has to deal with some perception issues based upon the fact that the Basalt town government has seen its fair share of controversies in the past couple years — including the TABOR issue.
“I believe any effort to spearhead this from within town hall could very well be met with a sense of distrust and uncertainty,” he said of early reports that the town government itself was planning to initiate an in-house program similar in its goals to BAG.
“Of course, we can’t change the past, but the contentiousness, vehemence and often virulent debate that Basaltines have experienced over the past several years, from the Our Town and Pan & Fork issues, to other development, planning and zoning concerns, voting issues, leadership and administration changes, plus the TABOR problem, have left citizens embattled and scarred,” he said. “Some have simply thrown up their hands in surrender and others have simply stopped trying because they are tired of fighting.
“I feel a sense of confidence — and it is showing on our Facebook page — that people see this effort as a grassroots group, unaffiliated with the town politics or administration, who are seeking to heal some of the wounds of the past and help us start anew,” Bramson continued. “There is nothing deeper, sinister or self-serving. I feel it is truly an altruistic effort. I'm not a betting man, but many nonprofits and a few hundred people have already shown, early on, their support of this effort, and I feel people will support this magnanimously. And, what’s the downside or negative? None. People have a choice.”
Even so, Bramson knows there will be opposition to BAG’s efforts.
“Of course, I anticipate, as with most things, we may have some of the naysayers, conspiracy-theorists and adversarials come out of the woodwork, but this is not a tax, not a required submission and not a burden on anyone,” he said. “So, what is there to fight about, or argue with? It is strictly a voluntary contribution to help build a better Basalt!”
Light, who was a managing partner at the Roaring Fork Club for 15 years, said he is optimistic about BAG’s direction.
“I’m glad Rick asked Jon Fox-Rubin to join the team,” he said. “He has extraordinary experience in nonprofits and business. He’s an example of the kind of people we want to see on our masthead.”
As of Wednesday morning, 142 people have “liked” the BAG Facebook page.
The Aspen Skiing Co. recently pledged two-thirds of its TABOR refund, which is estimated to be between $20,000 and $30,000.
Go to sites.google.com/foxrubin.com/basaltgives/home or facebook.com/BasaltGives for more information.