After rigorous vetting process, Steamboat Springs City Council prepares to decide fate of lodging tax
May 20, 2013
The lodging tax committee on Tuesday night is not yet seeking a vote from City Council on its final recommendation. After the recommendation is presented, the council will discuss it and open public comment. In the coming weeks, the council will vote on the recommendation in the form of an ordinance and also decide whether to put the proposal to a public vote, essentially binding future councils to the expenditure.
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat Springs City Council member Scott Myller said Monday his heart tells him the city could reasonably spend hundreds of thousands of lodging tax dollars on more than just hiking and biking trails in the coming years.
"But I also feel like (the decision for how to spend the tax) went through a long process, and I want to uphold that process instead of doing what I personally think is right," the councilman said.
After more than a year-long public vetting process that saw a six-member committee rigorously weigh dozens of proposals for the tax and narrowly recommend that 90 percent should be used to build local trails, it’s almost time for Myller and the council to decide how the hundreds of thousands of dollars generated from guest stays in Steamboat should be spent in coming years. The goal of the tax, according to the ballot question approved by voters in the mid-'80s, is to build amenities that will attract more visitors to town.
And the final council decision, which is expected to come next month, may not be unanimous.
As they look back at all of the proposals that were passed over — ranging from the revitalization of Yampa Street to the expansion of recreational facilities at Howelsen Hill — some council members are more willing than others to sign off on the lodging tax committee’s recommendation.
Other council members have concerns about the preferred proposal that would aim to bolster Steamboat’s reputation as a top cycling destination.
A big decision
Interviews with Myller and three other council members on Monday revealed some are prepared to, or leaning toward accepting the recommendation, while one wants to talk more about the possibly of using the revenue stream to fund more than one significant project.
"I don't think it's the only answer," council member Walter Magill said about the committee's recommendation that would dedicate an estimated $6 million to biking and hiking trails throughout the next decade. "I don't think we have to accept the task force finding and move the money to bikes only. I'm willing to do some splitting of the funds."
Magill also has concerns about the trails projects, including the construction of trails outside of city limits.
He added that the council should consider identifying some "shovel ready" projects that could be funded immediately, and perhaps leave it up to future councils to decide how to spend the money every few years.
Magill's openness to share the revenue stream among multiple proposals was shared by two of the six lodging tax committee members, including council member Cari Hermacinski.
For much of the committee's final meeting, the group was split evenly between funding the trails projects and a Yampa River promenade, or going all in on the trails project.
But in the end, a majority of the committee decided it would be better to fully invest in the trails instead of potentially diluting the tax revenue's impact by splitting it among multiple projects.
Council President Bart Kounovsky said Monday that he shares the concern that ultimately led the committee to its final recommendation.
"At first pass, I'm a little concerned if we decide to drip and drab the money to multiple projects and we don't get a significant bang for our buck or make a significant impact," Kounovsky said. "I know (the committee) has spent almost a year looking at this, and we've got to respect the work they've done."
Council member Myller said that although he has a personal desire to see the revenue distributed in a different way, he's leaning toward accepting the committee's final recommendation as is.
"At the moment, I do feel like this went through a lengthy process and lots of public hearings, and I'm a little reluctant to go in a different direction even though I've felt personally I've had some maybe stronger interest in the Howelsen Hill proposal," Myller said referring to a proposal that sought to add a second sheet of ice at the Howelsen Ice Arena, improve the rodeo grounds and develop a touring center on Emerald Mountain, among other things. "I'm open to seeing the tax split, but again, that wasn't the recommendation."
Council member Kenny Reisman was one of the four members of the lodging tax committee who advocated for the lion's share of the tax to fund the trails projects.
"I think through a lot of great discussion and intense scrutiny of all the proposals, we've come to a sound decision for our community based on the ballot language" that created the tax, he said.
With millions of dollars at stake during the next decade, the council continues to be lobbied by the passionate leaders and fans of the proposals that narrowly missed out on securing the committee's recommendation for the tax that historically has netted $600,000 to $800,000 annually.
"I've probably heard from one or two dozen constituents on this, which is more than a lot of issues," Magill said.
Chris Paoli, of Colorado Group Realty, said he recently has reached out to council members to advocate for the proposal to use part of the tax revenue to convert open space on Yampa Street into parks and add a promenade.
Paoli said the revenue effectively could be shared between the two finalists.
"To us, cycling and downtown have a direct synergy," he said. "We were 100 percent behind sharing and having both groups participate in the funding."
Council members also have received multiple letters, mostly from downtown stakeholders, advocating for them to share the tax revenue.
But leaders of the Steamboat Springs Trails Alliance continue to think if the revenue is split, their projects will be significantly hampered.
Eric Meyer said at a lesser commitment, he thinks the city will lose out on opportunities to fund the more expensive projects like the extension of the Yampa River Core Trail, a project many members of the lodging community see as a priority.
"There are a lot of people who want the in town connections, but they're more expensive," Meyer said. "If they split the money up, the reality is it's not going to happen."
Meyer said as the Trails Alliance awaits the council's final decision, the group is continuing to identify grant opportunities that could be leveraged with the tax revenue.
Cycling groups also are working to install counters at popular trails to establish a baseline of ridership.
Then, the Trails Alliance can more easily see whether its prediction that more trails will bring more cyclists, and dollars, to town was a good bet.
Council members agreed Monday that whatever proposal ends up getting the tax revenue, all of the players in a process that proved to be so extensive and passionate won't be satisfied.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com