Given the timing, it’s likely some Basaltines got two interesting envelopes in the mail on the same day this month, and while they might seem unrelated, there is a bit of a link between voter ballots, which need to be returned by this Tuesday, Nov. 5, and the property-tax refund checks that are handing back over $2 million to homeowners and businesses in town.
The money is owed because Basalt inadvertently broke a law related to Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) and collected more than it was allowed to. That same infraction means the town has to drop Basalt’s general operating mill levy from 5.957 mills – which it is, illegally, right now – to 2.562 mills in 2020. That’s the level, last hit in 2009, that TABOR laws require.
This is where the voter ballots come into play. In lay speak, Basalt residents are being asked if they want to keep their property taxes at the current level or force them to be decreased. However, TABOR requirements mean that Ballot Issue 3A – Set Basalt General Operating Mill Levy – has to be phrased as a $740,000 tax increase for next year.
That’s not really the case. In reality, the $740,000 represents how much less property tax money the town will have to spend on services like police and fire protection, sidewalk repairs, park maintenance and recreational programs should Ballot Issue 3A fail.
It would be a sizable blow to the town’s revenue, which has led to the rise of the organization Yes on 3A, championed by Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt and others, a group that has been advocating for the ballot measure this summer and fall. The measure is expected to win approval from voters, but if it fails, Basalt will have a budget shortcoming to overcome for the next few years, which will likely result in decreased public services.
This is where the TABOR-mandated refund checks come into play. Basalt collected the illegal $2.045 million over the years without realizing it was doing so in violation of a TABOR law. The money has also been spent over the years, so repaying it now is taking a toll on the town’s bottom line.
Sensing an opportunity to help Basalt-area residents help themselves, another group has formed locally. This one, Basalt Area Gives, is asking refund check receivers and others to contribute some or all of their refunds to a fund, overseen by a volunteer committee, that would help make up the $2 million hit and protect against the unlikely failure of 3A. The money is earmarked for local nonprofits, who can apply for grants, and donors can specify which nonprofits they want to give to.
“We thought it was such an exciting opportunity to do something for the community,” said local developer Jim Light. “One of the things that we all lament in local and national politics is that people are so divided, so we thought, ‘What if we could get everyone feeling good about doing something together?’”
It’s a noble endeavor, but Basalt Area Gives organizers like Light, former Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens and realtor and teacher Bennett Bramson admitted they weren’t sure when they started just how effective the idea would prove to be.
“When we looked at how we would view success, we said, ‘Well, if half the people gave half the money, that’s $500,000,’ ” said Light. “That’s huge. That could make a huge impact. That’s kind of the way we started, but we had no idea how much we could raise.”
The trio noted that the fund has about $100,000 in it so far, and they’re hoping that once more people contribute they’ll reach the point of having an endowment that can help fund nonprofits in 2021 and beyond. To date, donors have included businesses like Alpine Bank and the Aspen Skiing Co., as well as individuals like Mayor Whitsitt and all the town council members.
“The real goal here is to try to get people back on board with the common vision we all seem to be talking about,” said Stevens.
More than 60 nonprofits have signed on to be a part of the program, with those that can being asked to donate their refund money or contribute in some other way – “Help us help you,” said Bramson – and Basalt Area Gives is hoping Pitkin and Eagle counties, both of which claim parts of Basalt, will do their part, whatever that may be.
As with anything these days, the Basalt Area Gives committee expected some blowback from segments of the public opposed to the plan, but aside from one man who mistakenly assumed in an online post that the money would go back to the Town of Basalt, so far there’s been nothing but positive feedback from people of all walks of life and ideologies.
“We proactively prepared for the possibility that we could have negativists and naysayers,” said Bramson, “but except for that one post, which was misinformation, we have not had anybody say anything negative. That’s been the nice thing. People from the Democratic sector, people from the Republican sector, people from the left, people from the right are all finding this to be a wonderful idea that benefits the community.”
Other opportunities to vote for common good
Speaking of benefiting the community, virtually every other issue on the ballot could have a positive impact on people in Basalt, the Roaring Fork Valley and the rest of Colorado if it passes, but once again, TABOR language could be obscuring that fact.
For instance, a casual reader in Pitkin County might come away from scanning the ballot thinking that state taxes are going up by $29 million and county taxes by $700,000 (in addition to Basalt’s taxes “going up” by $740,000).
It sounds like a scary proposition due to the required TABOR language, and it might be enough to move some voters to act against the community’s best interests by voting “No/Against” on Proposition DD, Ballot Issue 1A and even Proposition CC, which doesn’t raise taxes.
Proposition DD, rather than raising taxes, would actually raise state revenue by up to $29 million by legalizing and taxing sports gambling in Colorado. Issue 1A would likewise raise up to $700,000 and discourage tobacco use in Pitkin County by increasing taxes on cigarettes and other nicotine and tobacco products.
Proposition CC tackles another TABOR issue by allowing the state to keep excess revenue collected above its projections instead of refunding the difference to taxpayers. It won’t cost the state anything if CC fails, but it will add a great deal to the state’s coffers to fund schools and infrastructure improvements if it passes.