Historic tax successful in Steamboat

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There's a sign outside the Tread of Pioneers Museum in downtown Steamboat Springs with a smiling face that simply reads, "Thanks for your support."

It expresses the feeling that most people involved with preserving and sharing the county's history have had since Tuesday, when county voters passed a 0.3-mill levy to help fund historical organizations and museums across the county.

Jayne Hill, president of the Tread of Pioneers Museum board of directors and a member of the Historic Routt County board of directors, was one person who was thrilled to learn that the tax was successful.

"We're really grateful for the support that was given to us in passing the mill levy," Hill said. "It was a pleasant surprise. I think any tax issue is a real challenge. The margin is assuring that people really value preservation and our heritage."

Although the tax won with almost 57 percent of the vote --2,713 voters said yes and 2,084 said no -- the split in votes shows strong support for the measure within Steamboat Springs voting precincts, but less so in rural Routt County. West Routt and Yampa voters turned down the measure, while voters in Oak Creek and North Routt barely approved it.

The winning votes

The tax may have seen its strongest support in Steamboat because the majority of it -- about $117,000 of the $210,000 raised annually -- will support the downtown Tread of Pioneers Museum. The funds can help the museum keep its free admission for students, stay open year-round with constant hours, and give museum workers more time to preserve artifacts, Hill said.

Within Steamboat precincts, the support for the measure was overwhelming. In some precincts, the measure passed by a 2-to-1 ratio. In Precinct 19, the measure won with almost 70 percent of the vote.

The tax may have gained support, Hill said, because it was reasonable and served everyone in the county.

Another reason was the importance residents place on preserving the area's history.

"It's the heart and soul of our county, it tells our story, it gives us our uniqueness," Hill said. "We have every facet of the Old West story to tell here. ... We've got the outlaws, the miners, the hunters, the recreation. It all happened in one county, and that's pretty unique."

The 0.3-mill tax will cost about $2.38 per $100,000 of residential property and $8.70 per $100,000 of commerical property.

Overall, the tax will provide about $210,000 a year to preserve the county's history. The funds from the proposed tax will be divided between the county's museums and historical societies according to school district boundaries and populations.

The tax provides funds for each area in the county, as taxes coming from an area stay there. But that also means communities outside of Steamboat Springs get less money because they have less total property value.

Hill said she guessed voters in communities outside the city did not show an overwhelming support for the tax because they did not want another tax.

"I think part of that was not a lack of support for heritage," Hill said. "I think a lot of the negative vote was just a no tax vote."

Rejection from Yampa

Yampa voters rejected the mill levy, 106 to 60.

Ever since the mill levy was proposed, some Yampa residents have voiced their opposition to it. One such resident was Wendy Moreau, director of the Yampa Egeria Museum, which is owned by the town of Yampa.

In August, after hearing that Moreau and a few others did not support the tax, Routt County commissioners encouraged the Yampa Town Board to discuss whether the issue should go to its voters. The board then agreed that voters should have the chance to decide on the tax.

Moreau has said that although she agrees that museums play an important role in society, she doesn't agree that people should be taxed to support them. Taxes are better used for infrastructure and other necessities, she said.

"I think probably the main reason (voters reject the tax is) it's a tax and it's just the principle," Moreau said.

A better alternative to the countywide mill levy would have been for the Tread of Pioneers Museum to take the request only to Steamboat voters, she said.

"(Some Yampa residents) are very afraid of letting other parts of the county have any say in what our dealings are," Moreau said. "Let us handle our needs on our own."

Although Moreau does not support the tax, she said the museum would be happy to use Yampa's $3,700 share of the funds. The first priority for that money, she said, probably will be to buy a security system for the museum.

West Routt voters similarly rejected the mill levy, 200 to 162.

Hayden Town Clerk Lisa Johnston said she guessed most voters were against the measure because Hayden residents already have a high mill levy.

"I think they were thinking we only have one museum here, and we already pay high taxes, so enough's enough," Johnston said.

Hayden residents already pay a property tax of about 25 mills for residential property, or $250 a year for each $100,000 of property.

Even though the tax would add only a few dollars a year to that price, it's an increase.

Historically, town residents do not vote for tax increases, Johnston said.

Because the measure passed, West Routt will receive $18,000 a year.

Hayden Heritage Center tour guide Donna Hellyer said the money will be used for many improvements, including rewiring the outdated electrical system; landscaping; implementing a newer, high-tech security system; improving structural elements; increasing advertising; and hiring a full-time curator to keep the museum hours open longer and to help organize and archive pieces.

"The bottom line is, we need more room," Hellyer said. "Right now, space is very limited."

The need for more room is because the museum's collection is already larger than its space and because the board wants to continue to expand its collection, Hellyer said. Another goal that is now attainable thanks to Referendum 1A is to increase advertising and public relations for the museum, which might encourage more people to offer their own historically significant items to the museum, Hellyer said.

"We need brochures placed throughout the area because we're off the beaten path, off the highway," Hellyer said. "A lot of people don't even know the museum is here. More intense (public relations efforts) and ads would be good."

Close calls

In the Oak Creek area, precincts 13 and 14, voters barely approved the mill levy with 163 to 150 votes, while in North Routt's Precinct 9, the measure squeaked by, with 88 in favor to 85 opposed.

Again, another common explanation for the close margin was that voters did not want another tax.

Renee Johnson, president of the Historical Society of Oak Creek and Phippsburg, said she guessed the vote would come out fairly close.

But, she said she's thankful that the mill levy was approved.

"We are, as a group, glad that it happened just so we can move forward with some projects," Johnson said.

The mill levy will provide some upfront funds to work with, $14,500 in the case of Oak Creek and Phippsburg and $7,700 in the case of North Routt.

That money will be particularly helpful in coming up with matching funds for grant applications, Johnson said. The society is now waiting to hear from the Colorado Historical Society about a $200,000 grant to renovate Old Town Hall.

Next steps

The remaining funds from the mill levy that aren't directly given to local historical organizations will help fund the countywide organization Historic Routt County and also will provide money for a special fund to give grants to individual groups.

Those two will receive about $21,000 each. The final $6,300 will be spent on administrative costs for the program.

Groups receiving the money have a big task ahead of them, Tread of Pioneers' Hill said.

The Tread of Pioneers Museum board will meet in the next week to discuss how the funds will be spent.

Hill expects the mill levy also could lead to the formation of a countywide museum organization, which would get together to determine how to share exhibits and resources and develop a vision for the five museums of the county.

"I think the tax develops a very positive link between all county museums and what we can develop together," she said.

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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