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Bag fee proposal to go before Steamboat Springs City Council

Jennifer Campbell loads reusable grocery sacks into the back of her car Monday after shopping at City Market. Steamboat Springs City Council will hear a presentation Tuesday night about bag fee ordinances in other Colorado communities. The council is considering rules that could affect shoppers who use plastic instead of reusable alternatives.

— A proposed fee on disposable plastic bags at Steamboat's largest retailers would be considered a "special fee," not a tax subject to voter approval as required by Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, Steamboat Springs City Attorney Tony Lettunich will advise the City Council on Tuesday.

Lettunich will make a presentation to council members tonight that will include similar ordinances being considered by other Colorado communities, including whether to ban plastic bags altogether, how much to charge, how the revenue would be used and what retailers would be subject to a bag fee.

Lettunich also will present details of a case decided by the Colorado Supreme Court that he said indicates a bag fee ordinance would be considered a "special fee" and not a tax subject.

"I think that's the consensus opinion," Lettunich said Monday. "That's my view and that's the view of the other municipal attorneys I talked to."

According to Lettunich's memo to council, the key elements of a "special fee" are:

• It is not designed to raise revenues to defray the general expense of government.

• It is a charge imposed upon persons or property for the purpose of defraying the cost of a particular government service.

• The amount of the fee must be reasonably related to the overall cost of the service.

• Mathematical exactitude is not required and the particular mode adopted by a city in assessing the fee is generally a matter of legislative discretion.

• An ordinance creating a special service fee generally will be upheld as long as the ordinance is reasonably designed to defray the cost of the particular service rendered by the municipality.

Lettunich goes on to say that to meet the key elements, revenues from a potential bag fee in Steamboat "must be directed to a designated account and spent on an environmentally-related program and the costs of administering that program."

Yampa Valley Recycles board of directors member Catherine Carson has led the push for the city to pass an ordinance requiring large retailers like City Market, Safeway and Walmart to charge customers a "green fee" for using paper and plastic bags. The hope is that the fee will motivate more folks to use reusable bags. As proposed by Yampa Valley Recycles, revenues from the fee would fund the purchase of reusable bags as well as education outreach efforts.

Not all Steamboat residents like the idea.

The topic has elicited strong reader reaction on SteamboatToday.com, and in a letter to the editor that appeared in Sunday's Steamboat Pilot & Today, resident Rich Lowe dismissed some of Carson's arguments that disposable shopping bags are costly and harm the environment while reusable bags are the solution. And he called the proposed charge of using disposable shopping bags a "use tax."

Aspen and Carbondale delayed second readings of their bag fee ordinances last week while Basalt approved a first reading. Aspen is now considering an outright ban of disposable plastic bags. Telluride approved a ban of plastic bags in 2010 and imposed a 10-cent fee of paper bags.

Tuesday's meeting is scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. with an hour-long executive session for City Council members to discuss unspecified personnel matters. The open portion of the meeting will start at 5:30 p.m. with a proclamation recognizing this as Constitution Week. Public comment is scheduled for 7 p.m.

Also at Tuesday's meeting, the City Council will:

• Hear an update about the Seminars at Steamboat summer speaker series.

• Have a joint meeting with the Steamboat Springs School Board.

• Consider an ordinance to close the Steamboat Springs volunteer firefighter defined benefit pension plan to new recipients.

• Consider a second reading of an ordinance to create a new article in the city's Municipal Code to license businesses as pawn brokers.

To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email jweinstein@SteamboatToday.com