A growing coalition is getting behind a Colorado River District tax-hike proposal intended to bolster its struggling balance sheet and strengthen its role in advocating for Western Slope water interests and helping fund projects.
However, opposition to the measure also emerged last week from Pitkin County commissioners, after their representative on the district board also was the only board member to have voted against the tax proposal.
Some other counties in the district have been formally endorsing the measure but, so far, there’s no indication that Mesa County commissioners will follow suit.
Pitkin County traditionally has been one of the largest sources of tax revenues within the 15-county district because of its high property values.
As for Mesa County, it has by far the largest population and largest number of voters who will help decide the fate of the proposal.
The district board has placed a measure on the November ballot to boost the district’s property tax rate to 0.5 mills. The district’s levy is now capped at 0.252 mills and its effective current rate is 0.235 mills.
The move would raise the district’s annual revenue by an estimated $4.9 million and cost an additional $1.90 per $100,000 in residential property value.
For business property, it would cost another $7.70 per $100,000 in assessed valuation.
The district works to conserve, protect and develop water in the Colorado River Basin in western Colorado. Its finances have been hurt by declining oil and gas revenues and impacts from the state Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) and Gallagher constitutional amendments. The Gallagher measure’s treatment of residential property taxation in Colorado has reduced tax collections in some tax districts in rural parts of the state.
The river district measure also proposes relieving the district from TABOR’s limits on how much revenue it can collect and spend in any year. The district still would have to go to voters for any further hike in its tax rate.
It is proposing to use just 14% of the new revenues the tax measure would raise to address its financial troubles. It plans to use the rest to partner with others on projects focused on agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, conservation and efficiency.
BACKERS LAUNCH CAMPAIGN
Last week, supporters of the measure launched their campaign to support the district proposal, Question 7A.
“Water access is non- negotiable in the West,” Kathy Hall, chair for the Friends of the Colorado River District campaign group, said in a news release. “Nothing is as central to our area as water. Question 7A will ensure that Western Slope water gets used on the Western Slope instead of being diverted to the Front Range or the West Coast states.”
Hall is a former Mesa County commissioner and now serves on the state Transportation Commission.
Among others stepping up to support the measure are Club 20, local peach farmer Bruce Talbott, local rancher Carlyle Currier, Moffat County rancher and former river district board member T. Wright Dickinson, and groups ranging from American Rivers to Western Resource Advocates to Business for Water Stewardship. The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and Grand Junction Economic Partnership back the proposal.
Matt Rice with American Rivers said during a Zoom meeting of supporters of the measure that the Colorado River is at risk due to factors such as drought and demand from cities outside the river basin and Lower Colorado River Basin states.
“All of this puts the West Slope way of life, our economy, our communities at risk,” he said.
He said the tax proposal is critically important, as evidenced by the diversity of support.
“We have conservationists standing next to ranchers standing next to water providers to get this done. It’s never ever been more important,” he said.
Dickinson said of his time on the district board, “It was a very eye-opening experience to me to get a look into how the entities that we deal with downriver and across the (Continental) Divide in Colorado, how well-funded (they are) and how those people in those areas have both invested in their infrastructure as well as the entities that represent them in water.”
He said that showed the importance of having a strong voice when it comes to water issues.
COUNTY SUPPORT SOUGHT
Some county commissions within the river district — among them those in Garfield, Eagle, Delta and Summit counties — have endorsed the tax measure, and supporters are continuing to pursue endorsements from other counties.
Steve Acquafresca, who serves on the river district board as the Mesa commissioners’ appointee to it, said he and the district’s general manager, Andy Mueller, recently visited with Mesa commissioners. He said he didn’t specifically ask for an endorsement of the measure, but asked them to speak out on it individually if they favor it.
He said commissioners spoke favorably about what the district has been doing.
But he added, “I think if the commissioners were enthusiastic in wanting to do a formal resolution, they probably would have gotten that going by now.”
The tax measure’s ballot language includes a clause Acquafresca requested, saying Mesa commissioners had said they wouldn’t consider backing the measure without it.
The language commits the district not to use any of the new tax revenue to pay for fallowing of agricultural fields. Temporary, voluntary, compensated fallowing is being considered as one means of Colorado cutting its water demand to bolster water storage by Upper Basin states in Lake Powell during drought, to help ensure they can meet their delivery obligations to downstream states and Mexico.
Mesa County Commissioner John Justman said he’s still undecided about whether he’ll vote for the tax hike.
“I guess I’m going to have to decide before too long, huh?” he said.
He said it wouldn’t be a huge amount of a tax increase for his household or his farm, but the money it would raise also is not a lot of money when it comes to funding water projects. But he could see it helping get projects funded, especially if leveraged with grants.
Acquafresca said with Mesa County being particularly politically conservative, a lot of local residents are tax-averse and probably a fairly constant number of people are going to vote against any tax proposal.
But he thinks some Mesa County residents are listening to the river district’s concerns about the greater competition for and threats to water resources at a time when the river district’s revenues and staff are shrinking.
“We’re trying to reverse that (revenue reduction) and be prepared for the competing challenges for a shrinking river,” he said.
John Ely, county attorney for Pitkin County and that county’s representative on the district board, voted against putting it on the ballot because of concerns that it lacked specific commitments about where the revenues generated would go, even as it would be spent by a district board not directly accountable to taxpayers but instead appointed by county commissioners.
“Quite frankly, I was looking for a way to support it,” Ely told Pitkin commissioners last week.
He wasn’t able to persuade fellow district board members to revise the ballot language.
While the district has a plan for using the money, Mueller had advised the board against tying the hands of future district boards through ballot-language spending commitments, given the unpredictability of what the future may hold.
He also had contended a shorter ballot proposal was more likely to pass than a longer one.
Mueller said Monday that the spending plan for the tax revenues is in the resolution the district board passed to put the measure the ballot.
“Our board considers that binding and believes it to be the representation of our district to voters of our district that they will follow that,” he said.
Ely noted that the proposal essentially would double the district’s tax rate. The Pitkin commission voted 3-2 to oppose the tax measure based in part on its failure to commit to where the revenues would be spent.
“I have some real concerns about the accountability of this money,” Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said.
Mueller said more than half of district board members are current or past county commissioners, and county commissioners “exercise very tight oversight” of the directors they appoint and the river district.
While all five Pitkin commissioners shared Ely’s reservations about the ballot language, two of them argued unsuccessfully for delaying a vote on opposing it so they could hear from the measure’s proponents.
Commissioner Greg Poschman said he can’t currently support the ballot measure as it’s written.
“Having said that, I would like to hear more and give a chance to speak to some of these advocates,” he said.
Said Mueller, “I think it’s important for elected officials to make informed decisions, and I don’t feel like the Pitkin County Board of Commissioners provided themselves with an opportunity to receive information that would have helped them make an intelligent and informed decision.”