Our View: Council wastes committee’s time

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Editorial Board, May and June 2013

  • Scott Stanford, general manager
  • Tom Ross, reporter

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At Issue

Lodging tax recommendation

Our View

Council erred in its handling of volunteer committee’s decision on how to spend tax revenues.

If the Steamboat Springs City Council didn’t like the recommendation of a volunteer committee that spent more than a year vetting proposals for accommodations tax funding, then it should have had the courage to just say so. Instead, the council had the audacity to ask the committee to meet again and come back with the recommendation some council members wanted to hear in the first place, not the one they got.

Perhaps the result shouldn’t be a surprise considering the intense lobbying that took place in the 11th hour of this lengthy process. With so much tax revenue on the line, groups that felt spurned by their proposal not getting the final nod were bound to make a last-ditch effort to sway the council. It appears to have worked.

And while we’ve made clear our belief that the Steamboat Springs Trails Alliance proposal offers the best chance of building Steamboat’s tourism base while simultaneously improving the quality of life for residents, we don’t doubt that proposals such as the Yampa River promenade would positively impact the community. But that’s not the point.

Our beef is with the council’s decision Tuesday to send the issue back to the lodging tax committee. The council certainly has the right to reject the committee’s recommendation and move forward with a plan of its own. And that’s what should have resulted from last week’s council meeting. Instead, the council asked the committee to meet again and essentially return with a recommendation that the lodging tax revenues be split between the Trails Alliance and Yampa River promenade proposals.

We can only imagine the frustration felt by some of the committee volunteers tasked with carefully analyzing and selecting the best proposal from among the three dozen or so that were initially submitted. After more than a year of meetings, they were told their recommendation isn’t what the council wants. And instead of leaving it at that, the council had the nerve to ask the committee to reconvene with a predetermined outcome.

What a waste of time. Many in our community long have complained about the amount of time and energy invested by citizen committees, only to have their work disregarded or dismantled by the elected officials who empowered them in the first place. After last week’s silliness in Centennial Hall, who would blame community members for shying away from future committee assignments?

Comments

John St Pierre 1 year, 6 months ago

If the city does ignore the committee's recommendation and decides to fund the Yampa street promenade then those funds should be only spent on city owned property and right of way... not a dime on buying privately owned... if the a property owner wants to participate they are certainly welcome to "donate" that section to the city... not a dime of public funds should be spent on acquisition or improvement on privately owned property. The lodging tax was collected by the lodging community not the retail and I would submit that those funds be spent to get the biggest bang for those who collect it.

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Stuart Orzach 1 year, 6 months ago

Council did not "waste the committee's time". Furthermore, the "intense lobbying that took place at the 11th hour" is called public input, and is a critical part of the democratic process. But I agree that sending the matter back to the committee is inappropriate. The ball is now in Council's court.
Committees are not "empowered" by Council. They are assigned a task. In this case, the task should have been to come up with a recommendation for the use of lodging tax revenue, as well as a reasoned basis for their recommendation. It is Council's right, indeed obligation, to fully consider the committee's recommendation, and the basis for it, but to make an independent decision. The Council should not only hear the committee's recommendation and arguments, but should also encourage public testimony from individual committee members, including ones that dissented from the majority decision. The limit of a committee's authority is to gather and present information, arguments, and a recommendation. Only Council is empowered to make binding legal decisions. Committee members would be wrong if they assume that Council has any obligation to abide by the committee's decision. Likewise, Council would be remiss if they blindly followed a committee's recommendation without fully vetting the arguments as well as fully considering public comment. As far as citizens shying away from future committee assignments, let me say this: Citizens would be well advised to fully understand the nature of the process they are entering into before doing so. Too often, citizens go forth blindly just because it feels right. I have seen much effort misdirected and wasted by citizens of this City. Citizens would be well advised to first understand who has the power, and how, when and where decisions are made.

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 6 months ago

So what are the mistakes that the City Council identified in the committee's recommendations that it wants the committee to correct upon further review?

It appears that all City Council did was to ask for a different outcome without explaining to the committee what they failed to consider.

Thus, the City Council is actually asking the committee whether they properly considering where to spend the money. Thus, the committee should first identify any mistakes they made in their process. They should vote on whether they agree they made mistakes and if they think they did it correctly then they should not reconsider their recommendations.

If the committee does not believe that they made mistakes then by rejecting their recommendations then the City Council will have wasted their time. The whole purpose of the committee was to deeply research the issue and limit the influence of lobbying. And the net result is that the lobbyists were able to convince the City Council to ignore their committee's recommendations and ask for different recommendations more suitable to the lobbyists.

At least in terms of what has been printed, the Yampa St improvements are a nightmare of private property improvements that should be paid by the property owners and right of way improvements that should be paid by the City. I have yet to see a description of work that should be paid by the accommodations tax.

I suppose if the property owners gave easements for a walkway along the river then accommodations tax could reasonably be spent on making the improvements consistent and nicer across the different properties.

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Matt Hightower 1 year, 6 months ago

Thanks Teamboat Pilot for saying what a lot of us want to, y'all are on the right page!

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 6 months ago

Spending redevelopment tax money on a place like Yampa Street where they are already million dollar properties, even the vacant Riverwalk parcel is a valuable parcel, is the worst type of spending.

First, it could easily become a gift benefiting wealthy property owners.

Second, once it is clear that City is giving out gifts then it discourages other commercial property owners from spending money improving their projects since they can get a far better return on investment if they convince the City to pay for the improvements.

Third, it means that property owners in an area expecting gifts from the City then value their properties higher so someone with money to invest now has to pay more.

Government works best (or does the least harm) when it's rules define a level playing field and allows the private sector to figure out what is a worthwhile investment. The more government also plays on the field then the more the private sector withdraws to not be competing against the rulemaker with a never ending supply of money.

For instance, Steve Lewis has said there is hope the City will make improvements along Oak St. But if the expectation is that the City will pay for and build a nice sidewalk that is normally the responsibility of the property owners then what property owner is going to pay to build a nice sidewalk? Now, if the City had a grand design for the look of the street and will pay for those added features when Oak St property owners build the sidewalks at the edge of the right of way (that are their responsibility) then that would encourage, not discourage the property owners to build the sidewalks.

(Sidewalks are a funny thing because courts have ruled that they benefit the property owner so a government can require the property owners to build and maintain sidewalk even if they are in the public right of way.)

I think one very favorable part of the trails proposal is that they are public amenities that would not otherwise be built. Yampa St is a gift to property owners with an implicit promise to Oak St property owners that they are next. Until the Yampa St property owners bring forward their investment plan and the sort of additional niceties on public property that they would like the City to fund then that project should not be a candidate for public funding.

If I was on the committee then the only alternative I would recommend to the city Council was spend what you want on bike trails and put the rest in the bank.

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Scott Ford 1 year, 6 months ago

From my perspective, the Accommodation Tax Committee is not a "citizen" committee in the traditional sense. Of the six members on the committee, three are from lodging industry, two are city council members, and only Tom Ptach is designated as the Citizen Representative.

I do not have a problem with the composition of the committee -I simply think the Pilot is off the mark a wee-bit calling it a "citizen" committee. I am open to being convinced otherwise.

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 5 months ago

Scott F.

The two City Council members on the committee certainly are not normally described as volunteer citizens serving on a committee.

But the lodging representatives could be reasonably described as independent citizens with additional business and tourism expertise. They did not appear to be any sort of a block promoting any particular type of proposal. I note that none of proposals being considered were directly related to lodging or lodging properties. So I think it is fair to consider the lodging representatives as "citizens with knowledge" serving on the committee.

Very often a committee is formed with some members clearly representing particular outcomes so four independent of six isn't bad for a "citizens committee".

The editorial's main point is valid that the City has a long history of asking for people to serve on committees only for the City Council to dispute the committee's recommendations. You served on a tax policy committee which the City was severely disappointed when it failed to recommend a property tax and then the City ignored the advice to build up reserves when sales tax revenues are good.

In this case, City Council could have decided that committee's recommendations were the result of a close vote, thanked the committee for narrowing it down to two proposals and then made their own decision. But it is bizarre to ask the committee to meet some more to give a different recommendation without at least saying that the committee made errors in the process such as neglecting to consider certain relevant information or considering improperly biased information. And the point of the committee is defeated when the City Council then tells the committee to meet again and change their recommendations to what the City Council wants.

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Scott Ford 1 year, 5 months ago

Good Morning Scott W -

As always, I appreciate your response.

The Accommodation Tax Committee is far different from either of the Citizen Tax Advisory Committee (CTAC) that have been formed in the past. I was not a member of either of the CTACs. I provided technical data support to both more so to the first rather than the second one.

Having sat through the last four or five Accommodation Tax Committee meetings there was a lot of discussion and perhaps from my own personal interpretation, a hope that the funds generated by the Accommodation Tax could be used to fund both Trails and the Yampa Street Promenade. Committee members Tom and Cari went through a couple of math exercises to show that doing both was possible with some scope and project prioritization by both groups. In the end both Tom and Cari deferred to the lodging committee members.

The trails group has promoted that there are a host of grants available to leverage Accommodation Tax dollars. Winnie gave a 20+ minute presentation on the host of grants available that may be available depending on the project. It made me dizzy.

In summary, I think the committee is being asked by City Council to simply gain a better understanding of the grant and funding options available and what is reasonably realistic. Council is not rejecting the committee's recommendation it is only asking for more information in order to make a decision. Council recognizes that this is beyond the scope of committee's original task. I think that this is a reasonable request of the committee. Who better to do it?

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Steve Lewis 1 year, 5 months ago

Hello Scott Ford,

Nice day! Enjoy yours!

In your observations of the meetings, did the CTAC speak to the funding sources needed to maintain these next accommodation tax improvements? CTAC recommended part of the accommodation tax should maintain the prior improvement, the golf course. But not these new projects?

A big thank you to our veterans!

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Scott Ford 1 year, 5 months ago

Good Morning Steve - Yes, there was an extensive discussions regarding on-going maintenance cost - specifically for the Yampa Street Promenade. Likely, because of some of the experiences associated with past projects Cari was very interested in making sure these cost were covered. According to some of the major property owners along Yampa Street, they would be agreeable to a special property tax district assessment to fund maintenance and some capital expenses perpetually. This approached seemed to be very satisfactory to Cari.

This special district would not be a TIF. The Yampa Street group is also agreeable that funding for the Promenade would be contingent upon this special district being established. The City would still do its current base level of service along Yampa Street the cost of which is calculated based on some formula.

The maintenance needs of the trails being proposed beyond expansions to the Core Trail would be addressed through volunteers. The maintenance of any expansions of the Core Trail if were to occur is TBD but most likely the cost would be the City's responsibility.

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Stuart Orzach 1 year, 5 months ago

Scot F,

The makeup of the committee doesn't alter the legal rights and responsibilities of either the committee or Council. It is still a citizens' committee Public officials often dictate the makeup of a committee, and committees often have public officials as members. But, in their role as committee members, they are wearing their citizen's hat. Like the lodging industry representatives, the public officials are also citizens with specific expertise. Thank you for providing a more nuanced description of the additional task that Council assigned to the committee. When it comes to really knowing what took place at a meeting, there's no substitute for being there. Based on your input, I rescind my previous statement that sending the matter back to committee is inappropriate. However, I stand behind my other comments for the time being.

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 5 months ago

Stuart,

Except the public officials also have a secondary vote as City Council members on whether to approve the committee's recommendations. So if the overall committee doesn't agree with the public officials then the public officials get a second shot at having their way and can tell the committee to meet again to agree with them.

I think it shows there is little reason for anyone to serve on a committee which includes City Council members that reports to the City Council.

The silly part of this process is the pretense that this commits the accommodations tax to a multi-year plan. There is simply no way that those seeking the money will not be back next year with what they claim are better proposals. If Yampa St property owners pass a tax improvement district and comes back next year asking for accommodations tax money to match their tax revenues and their grant applications then that is a far better proposal than the hopeful promises they make now.

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Steve Lewis 1 year, 5 months ago

Scott Wedel, As I understand it, any of these choices would next be on the November ballot to lock-in the new tax use for the longer term.

Scott Ford, Thanks. Are you sure that special tax district is for Yampa St alone? I asked City staff about this after the Tuesday CC hearing and they still show a BID district of undefined size for ongoing maintenance of the Yampa St improvements and parks.

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Scott Ford 1 year, 5 months ago

Hi Steve - It is my understanding that the special district associated with the maintenance of Yampa Street Promenade being discussed would include only properties along Yampa Street. However, I am not sure of the exact boundaries along Yampa Street that are being discussed.

The Downtown BID is a different "kettle of fish" . I am not aware of any discussions that would use BID revenues for the maintenance of the Yampa Street Promenade.

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 5 months ago

Steve,

Well, I think any proposed long term plan for spending the accommodations tax would be expected to fail at the ballot. The supporters have the tough case to make that the spending plan must be locked in for years. The opponents have a much easier case to make that better alternatives could come along and should be considered. Even supporters of trails can agree that there could be some trails not worth spending that money to build. Some of trail building will probably find opposition from people that want the trail to remain natural and not improved. And if the trail building becomes a fiasco that is obviously not attracting many tourists then why should money have to spent for several more years?

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