Third time's a charm

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— The board of First Impressions may yet get the opportunity to go to the voters with a half-cent sales tax proposal in November.

The third time proved to be a charm Tuesday night for the child care advocacy group, whose attempts to ask a ballot question to fund early childhood education had been dismissed by the council twice before. This time, however, the group came back with a proposal that addressed most of the city's substantive concerns.

"I will support this proposal," said City Council President Kevin Bennett. "I think they've done enough work, they've listened to us, they've come back, they've tried like the dickens and I think it's time that we should work with them. I'm not sure from the city's point of view that this is good tax policy but I do want the voters to decide."

The First Impressions board decided it would be willing to exempt groceries and other "essential" food from the mix of taxable items, while asking the county to place a one mill property tax dedicated to a child-care subsidy on the ballot. The board will be asking the county to place the property tax on the ballot today.

The half-cent tax would be collected in the city but distributed in an area including the city and a five-mile radius around the city. City Council had been concerned that the city residents would be paying for a tax that benefited the entire county.

Another major change came in how the money will be allocated. The proceeds from the tax would be doled out to parents based on need, instead of being given to child-care providers themselves to raise salaries. Parents would be "means-tested" to find out if based on their income level and financial status they qualify for a subsidy. The providers then could raise their rates, meaning those who could afford to pay more would have to pay more.

First Impressions claims that the actual cost of providing child care in Routt County is $49 per day, whereas most centers charge between $28 and $32. Providers end up offering their child-care workers salaries that are too low to live in Steamboat Springs.

City Council did not actually vote to place the item on the ballot this November, but indicated that it would likely be willing to give the voters a chance to have their say. City Council members were willing to refer the question to the voters, but were unwilling to give the item their support, in part because they did not feel comfortable adding more sales tax to the 8.4 percent city residents pay. The city is almost entirely sales-tax dependent and bypassed placing any property tax on this year's ballot.

That's why the council said it would consider to passing the item not as an ordinance which could imply they agreed with the proposal but as a resolution simply referring the question to the voters. A resolution only needs to be voted on once. The child-care question will come before council as a resolution on Aug. 21 at a regular meeting.

Council President Pro Tem Kathy Connell expressed concern over the fact that Steamboat residents could be getting taxed twice, once in the form of a property tax and once in the form of a sales tax. She noted the board should do its best to avoid double-dipping and consider an exemption for city residents and businesses in terms of the property tax.

The city also referred the chamber's tax proposal to the ballot on first reading with discussion of the tax contribution to the city's free bus system.

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