Our View: Learned lesson

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The Steamboat Springs City Council has decided to go after a property tax to fund fire and ambulance services again.

While we have reservations about the tax, at least the city appears ready to be more honest about how the money will be used this time around.

The new proposal is a 4-mill tax that would increase taxes $31.84 for every $100,000 of assessed value for residential property and $116 for every $100,000 of assessed value on commercial property.

That's down a mill from last November, when the city also sought a property tax for fire and ambulance services. Voters rejected that proposal 1,931 to 1,678, a margin of 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent.

That tax would have generated $1.9 million, including $600,000 for more firefighting personnel and more equipment. But in our view, one of the main reasons the tax failed is that the tax's primary aim wasn't funding fire and ambulance services, but creating a $1.3 million capital fund for the city.

It costs the city $1.3 million to fund fire and ambulance services. The proposed property tax would have added another $600,000 to that budget for more personnel, and freed up $1.3 million for capital. The truth is, the city can dedicate a property tax to funding any of its services and use the freed up funds for capital. Council members chose emergency services because they thought it would play better with voters.

It didn't work, and now it appears the city may have learned its lesson.

At the July 15 council meeting when the city decided to move forward with the latest tax, council members admitted the city had to be more forthcoming about how the money would be used.

"We have to get very specific," Councilwoman Nancy Kramer said.

City Council President Kathy Connell said the city must develop a detailed list of projects the tax will fund. "Council must come up with a list so businesses can see something that is going to help them," City Council President Kathy Connell said.

We have reservations about the tax. We're not sure any tax is appropriate given the current economic climate. As Councilman Loui Antonucci said, "it is really bad timing to go to the people of this town and increase their cost of living."

And while we agree that a combination of property and sales taxes can provide the city with more stable revenues, the city's chances of getting a property tax approved would be a lot better if it offered some level of sales tax relief in exchange.

Still the council's approach this time around is an improvement over the 2002 referendum. The city is asking for a smaller tax and council members seem prepared to be upfront with voters on how the $1.6 million in tax revenues will be used.

Connell's approach of putting together a list of capital projects to be funded is a smart one. Any effort to create a new tax without being clear about the specific benefits to residents is, as voters proved last fall, doomed to fail.

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