The deadline for submitting responses to the community survey circulated by the Basalt town government in response to its admitted decade-long overcharge of property tax is well-nigh upon us. Verily, by the time you read these words, that deadline — Friday, March 29 — likely will have passed.
Response to the survey, which has been out and about for more than a month, is hovering at only about 12 percent, which is surprising, given how riled the citizenry seemed to be in early February when the town first announced that it may have violated terms of the Colorado Taxpayer Bill of Rights — known as TABOR — for the previous 10 years.
In late January, the Basalt town government admitted to the public that it might run afoul of TABOR, passed into law in 1992 by a statewide citizens’ referendum that amended Article X of the Colorado Constitution. TABOR restricts revenues for all levels of government — state, local, special districts and schools. Under TABOR, state and local governments cannot raise tax rates without voter approval and cannot spend revenues collected under existing tax rates without voter approval if revenues grow faster than the rate of inflation and population growth.
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.
That’s when the TABOR-based trouble began.
Though the mill levy still has not exceeded the 6.151 level approved by voters in 1994, the fact that the rate has been raised almost every year from 2010 to its current level of 5.957 mills for this year apparently runs afoul of TABOR.
The potential error came to light during the town’s annual budget process in November, but, since that process was too far along to make any major changes, the town set the 2019 mill levy despite its newly unearthed TABOR concerns.
Two public meetings on the subject were held in February.
Shortly thereafter, the town government decided to circulate the community survey, which was designed to a large extent to gauge whether to ask Basalt voters in November to forgive what many people in town consider a debt — estimated to total about $2 million — owed to an overcharged citizenry.
The survey was distributed on Basalt’s town government website, as well as though the U.S. mail.
According to Basalt Finance Director Christy Hamrick, who did not take up her duties until last autumn, 1,529 surveys were mailed out.
“The [mailing] list came from the Colorado Secretary of State’s statewide voter file, and it was downloaded in February,” Hamrick said. “It is common practice to utilize this list because it is typically the most up-to-date and accurate for a given community. The SOS regularly updates this list with changed addresses and new residents.
“Before the survey was mailed, the printer/mail house took additional list-maintenance steps by householding the addresses — meaning that an address with two or more people only received one mailer — and another review against the National Change of Address database,” she continued. “On top of the relative accuracy of the SOS’s voter database, this type of list is typically used for feedback regarding public finance issues, because in Colorado and according to TABOR, it’s current voters who have the ultimate decision-making authority through an election.”
As of Tuesday, March 26 — three days before deadline — about 150 online responses and 39 mail-in responses had been received by the town, Hamrick said. She hopes more come in before the March 29 deadline.
“We have worked diligently through a variety of venues to get the word out on the survey, hoping to receive as much community input as possible,” Hamrick said on Tuesday. “Our response rate is currently over 12 percent. A 12-percent response rate is good, and we are hoping to get even more responses by Friday. We believe the main reason for the higher response rate is the ability for the community to fill out the survey online. A 4-percent response rate on a government survey is normal, and we were originally hoping to get at least a 10-percent response through getting the word out and including the online version.
“The Council and Town administrators will use the information gathered in this community opinion survey — as well as other public input — in determining whether to place one or more questions on the November 2019 ballot,” Hamrick continued. “We are hopeful to receive surveys from as many people within the community as possible. When the survey results are available, those results will be tabulated and presented to Council publicly, continuing the Town’s transparent approach to this topic.”
There are some concerns about the survey process in general and the wording of the survey in particular.
According to Hamrick, the actual wording of the survey was established by “a team of town staff and Council members, with support from a consultant working with the town on this issue.”
That consultant, according to Hamrick, is Bill Ray.
“He is the public affairs consultant used by the Town to help with this survey,” she said. “He has over 15 years of experience with local government communications, and has previously worked with RFTA and Eagle County Open Space locally.”
Shae Singer is not impressed. Singer, who has been vociferous about the whole TABOR issue on the Basalt Community Facebook page, thinks the survey process is inherently flawed.
She is especially peeved about the implicit threat of having to reduce services if Basalt is forced to repay the estimated $2 million that it overcharged town property owners over the previous four years. (TABOR has a four-year statute of limitations for such transgressions.)
“I believe it is written in a way that skews it to a negative choice,” says Singer, who was a resident of Basalt in the 1980s and ’90s and who bought the Midland Mall, which she still owns, during that time frame. “It does not allow a simple response. For instance, it asks ‘if the money is paid back, are you willing to give up current services?’ Well, that is wrong. The people who live in Basalt now — even if they are new residents — don’t want things to change, obviously. Yet the people who overpaid are owed the money and being penalized. How about wording it ‘since the town of Basalt made a mill levy/TABOR error, we are paying it back? Going forward we will be reallocating funds.’ It seems there are plenty of funds, especially in light of them wanting to stop the tobacco tax so as not get too much money.”
Singer is especially miffed that, if an election is held on the TABOR overcharge, only current registered voters living in Basalt will be able to vote.
“In a nutshell, I think the error was made and needs to be fixed,” Singer continued. “I do not think property owners affected who do not live in Basalt now should be excluded from a vote on their money. No matter how temporary or transient current residents might be, they get to vote, but people like me who still own property in Basalt but now live outside Basalt do not. Also people who paid in and have since sold do not get a voice and might not even know they are due money.”
Singer is not the only person who has issues with the survey.
Amy Oliver Cook is the executive vice-president of the Denver-based Independence Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank that fully supports TABOR.
“A couple of us went through the survey,” Cook said. “The questions themselves aren’t too bad, but the results of these types of online polls are highly suspect because they are prone to sample bias. What they are likely to tell you is which side is better at getting people to do an online poll. If they really want to know how residents feel, then they should hire a reputable polling firm to conduct a survey. Or just do the right thing, and give the money back. At the very least, ask voters what they want via a ballot measure.
“It’s really an unscientific poll, such as a newspaper poll,” she continues. “You don’t get a real representation of how the general public feels. I’ll say this — it’s a terrible way to decide whether or not the city is actually on the right or wrong track.”
Cook’s observation about “sample bias” is one that often accompanies such surveys.
Though its definition fills entire books and courses of study, in a nutshell, sample bias is a bias in which a sample is collected in such a way that some members of the intended population are less likely to be included than others.
There are also issues with the preferences and preferred outcomes of the people putting surveys together making their way — sometimes purposefully, sometimes inadvertently — into the questions, which can often be considered to be leading in nature.
Another concern that falls under the sample bias rubric is the interpretation, packaging and presentation of information gleaned from a survey.
Hamrick was asked, “How will the process of aggregating and interpreting the responses play out? Who will do that? Will that process be conducted in a transparent manner? When will that process be completed?”
She responded, “All results will be tabulated and presented to Town Council at one of their regular public meetings in April. The results will be made available to the town and are considered a public record. A decision about whether there will be an election will be made by the election deadline per the calendar of election deadlines from the Secretary of State.”
Ballot language for a proposed election would need to be adopted by the town by mid-September in order to appear on a November ballot.
Singer remains frustrated.
“First, if you are not on the Facebook pages and do not currently live in Basalt, you will not know about the survey, nor will you know that anyone is able to fill it out,” Singer said. “All previous info shared makes it seem only current residents can offer thought, feedback and vote. I think the town owes money to all property owners that were overcharged due to their error.”
The online version of the Basalt Mill Levy Survey included such questions as:
- Before receiving this information, how much would you say you have read or heard about the Town’s mill levy issue?
- In general, would you say that the Town of Basalt is on the right track or heading in the wrong direction?
- Please share your opinion about how you believe the Town of Basalt should view its priority for addressing this mill levy issue.
- If the Town of Basalt has to provide refunds and reduce its mill levy, it will have to reduce services in order to cut the Town’s budget. Please circle a number that denotes which Town services are most important to you, with 5 being highest and 1 being lowest.
- If an election were held today, would you vote “yes” in favor, or “no” to oppose, to allow the Town of Basalt to maintain its property tax at the current rate of 5.957? The 5.957 rate would become the Town’s permanent rate to fund operations and services moving ahead.
- Would you vote “yes” in favor, or “no” to oppose, to allow the Town of Basalt to retain property tax revenue from previous years, instead of reducing Town services in order to provide a refund?