Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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As Interim City Manager Deb Hinsvark, Public Safety Director Joel Rae and a majority of the Steamboat Springs City Council work at breakneck speed to consummate a real estate windfall to Big Agnes, Honey Stinger and BAP — while spending upward of $10 million from its reserve fund to build new police and fire facilities — city property owners may be unaware that Hinsvark and the council soon will hit them with a new tax (they’ll call it a fee) to pay for approximately $10 million in storm water infrastructure improvements.
Yes, you read that correctly.
City reserve funds that could be used to pay for storm water infrastructure improvements — now mandated because the city crossed the 10,000 population threshold in the last census — instead will be used to pay for new police and fire facilities while property owners will be taxed to pay for the storm water improvements. This new tax will be in addition to the increased water and sewer rates that recently went into effect.
Compounding this transgression, the council members who support this trade-off seemingly think it’s more important to use city funds to benefit Big Agnes — with an amount that easily could approach $2 million — than it is to hold down taxes for the 11,000 city residents who paid the taxes that helped build the city’s reserve fund in the first place.
In addition to the fact that the Big Agnes deal reeks of crony capitalism in the same way the Iron Horse deal that continues to hobble Steamboat reeked of crony socialism, it’s unconscionable to spend millions of dollars — which painstakingly were accumulated under the proffered rationale of having funds for infrastructure “needs” — on extravagant new police headquarters when those funds could be used to prevent the need for property owners to pay for storm water infrastructure.
In support of this error in judgment, Hinsvark and Rae repeatedly cite a 2002 study that concluded the police department “needed twice the amount of space that it has in the Yampa building in order to function effectively.” Are the residents of Steamboat supposed to think that for the last decade the police department was not effective? If anything, given how effectively and professionally our police perform, that oft-trumpeted report proves the opposite of what Hinsvark and Rae wish. Clearly, the existing police facility could be expanded and remodeled to provide additional space for a fraction of the cost of the current proposal to build a massive public safety campus on the western side of the city.
But that wouldn’t fit with the “vision” that some have for Yampa Street. Of course, some of the same folks behind that vision have interests in other projects around the ’Boat that are sitting dormant because of the still-depressed real estate market. Perhaps the council should wait until those moth-balled projects come to life before entertaining the notion of risking scarce public funds on deals designed to benefit a tiny fraction of the citizenry — especially when those funds could be used to hold down the tax burden on residents.
The council should remember that they are elected, first and foremost, to keep city government in check and to act as fiduciaries on behalf of the all the residents of Steamboat, not to be rubberstamps that succumb to the private arm-twisting sessions that Hinsvark and Rae held with council members.
Given the council’s fiscal responsibility, coupled with the harsh reality that we continue to live in uncertain economic times, the council should spend city funds in a manner that respects the fact that the citizens who bear the burden of paying the taxes that feed the city’s coffers continue to be under financial assault from many directions.
To spend $10 million from the city’s reserve fund for new police and fire facilities — only to turn around in the near future and tell property owners they must cough up a similar amount for storm water infrastructure — is irresponsible and unfair to the hard-working residents of Steamboat.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.