Locals debating proposed excise tax

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— As presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush battle it out in three televised debates this month, Routt County is embarking on its own debate program starting today. The first of two debates sponsored by Environment 2000, a not-for-profit group, on issues that will show up on the November ballot will be over the city's proposed excise tax.

The second debate, on Thursday, will cover Amendment 24, another ballot item.

The debaters, Dave McDonald of the Friends of Affordable Housing, and Stephen Cavanagh, who owns TCD Inc., will stand off at the Howelsen Hill Lodge tonight. Public participation is necessary to make the debate a successful one, said John Spezia, one of the leaders of Environment 2000.

The format, like the Gore-Bush debates, will include a moderator and opening and closing remarks. Unlike the first of the presidential debates, however, the public will decide the direction of the debate.

After 10-minute opening statements, the moderator, Yampa Valley Community Foundation Executive Director Diane Sutton, will field written questions from the public about the excise tax. After the written questions are debated, the audience will be allowed to comment on the issue.

The debate will conclude with a five- or 10-minute wrap-up from each of the debaters. The entire debate will likely take about an hour, Spezia said.

"This is on a really important aspect of our community," he said. "People can't afford to live here, so we lose our community."

Rob Dick, the executive director of the Regional Affordable Living Foundation, agreed with Spezia's concerns.

"Our stance on this issue is really pretty clear," he said. "There's a real lack of affordable housing in the community. If we continue to export members of the community, we're going to export the character of the community and import traffic, pollution and social problems."

The board of RALF initially proposed the excise tax to the City Council, which voted Jul. 11 to begin drafting language for a ballot question on the matter. An excise tax would be levied on new construction on a per square foot basis and revenues would be dedicated to purchasing land for affordable housing projects.

Much of the opposition to the tax comes from the ranks of Steamboat's realtors and developers, who believe they and their customers would be unfairly taxed. Some, such as local realtor and developer Harold Stout of Elk River Realty, complain that the tax would unethically place a burden on people who have not yet moved to Steamboat.

"If the city thinks that it's appropriate to create a taxing body for government-subsidized housing, then it's ethically important to find a way to tax the existing real estate market fairly and not solely on those people who have yet to build on their property," Stout said.

Stout said that he is an advocate of affordable housing but feels that Referendum 2A is the wrong way to go about getting it. He is worried that the referendum doesn't provide the city with a strong enough plan to direct it as to where the affordable housing would go and how to mitigate its impacts.

"Affordable housing is a good idea, but this idea is not," Stout said. "I mean, it's easy for everybody to say they're pro-motherhood. But you don't want to find out later that what you were for was teen pregnancy."

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