Forum on Routt County election issues draws crowd
October 14, 2011
Steamboat Springs — A packed election forum at the Steamboat Springs Community Center on Thursday stayed crowded until the end — when supporters and opponents of a winter air service tax and medical marijuana businesses squared off on the same day many residents received their ballots in the mail.
Resident Ed Miklus provided the opposition to Referendum 2B, a proposed 0.25 percent sales tax increase that would supplement the winter air service program that helps bring jets into Yampa Valley Regional Airport throughout the ski season. He sat next to Resort Group President Mark Walker and Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. Senior Vice President of Marketing Rob Perlman, who represented the supporters of the air service tax.
Miklus told the more than 120 people at the forum that he supports the air service program, but he emphasized the importance of residents understanding a tax proposal that he called a "taxpayer bailout."
"This is for you folks to decide," said Miklus, a member of the city's Tax Policy Advisory Board who said he wasn't representing that or any other group. "Do you want to provide public funding to a private corporation? That's the first issue. The second issue is, shouldn't the users pay? Why should we pay?"
Walker, who also is a member of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association's Board of Directors, said a winter air service task force worked for three months and considered different ideas before settling on a sales tax. He said other ideas included a fee at YVRA and an increase to the Local Marketing District lodging tax that voters approved in 2004. The air service program currently is funded by Ski Corp. and the LMD lodging tax, with a much smaller contribution coming from local businesses through the Fly Steamboat program.
"The reason that we settled on the 0.25 (percent sales tax) is because it's equitable across the board," Walker said. "Because everybody is affected and receives benefit in the quality of life we have in this valley through that."
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Perlman said the program created in 1986 peaked at 161,000 airline seats into YVRA during the 2007-08 season and fell to 118,000 seats last year, a 27 percent decline. During that time, he said airline costs continued to rise and will increase 30 percent for the upcoming ski season.
Passage of the sales tax would provide a $1.3 million annual boost to the LMD for five years, Perlman said. He said it wouldn't reduce Ski Corp.'s obligation to the program.
Perlman said it would cost about $49 annually for the average Steamboat household and $20 a year per person during the course of the five-year tax. He said visitor spending generates 50 to 60 percent of the city's sales tax revenue.
"It's a small investment to make and a huge return," Perlman said.
Miklus said research conducted by the Tax Policy Advisory Board indicated that visitors contribute about 35 percent to the city's sales tax revenues, not 50 to 60 percent. He said the air service program provides more supply, but questioned what was being done to create demand.
"Seats don't add to our economy," he said. "It's the visitors who fill those seats that add to our economy."
Referendum 2B was one of three ballot measures addressed at the candidate forum sponsored by the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Steamboat Springs Board of Realtors, the Routt County Democratic Party and the Routt County Republican Central Committee.
The final and perhaps most heated debate of the night was the one between Rocky Mountain Remedies co-owner Kevin Fisher and Dr. Kelly Victory about a proposed ban of medical marijuana businesses.
Fisher said medical marijuana would remain in the community regardless of whether voters ban the businesses that provide it.
"The question for this election is do we prefer to have this medicine dispensed in a heavily regulated lawful manner or do we prefer the production and sale of marijuana be driven to our neighborhoods and sold without any oversight," he said.
Fisher also cited what he said were the positives of the industry, including the creation of dozens of local jobs and the contribution of millions to the local economy.
Victory, who co-founded a group to oppose local medical marijuana businesses, said the industry has increased drug use among youths and continues to damage Steamboat's image. She said the medical marijuana industry has become a sham since voters approved the use of marijuana for certain medical conditions in 2000.
"Amendment 20 and the good intentions of the voters was co-opted to create a multi-million dollar industry to sell drugs to those who want it purely for recreational use," Victory said. "Prior to 2009, Routt County had 12 registered medical marijuana cardholders. By May of this year, the number exploded to 1,143."
Steamboat Springs School Board Vice President Brian Kelly spoke in support of Proposition 103, a proposed increase of Colorado's sales and income taxes to fund public education. Asked how voters can be assured the money Proposition 103 would generate — an estimated $2.9 billion over five years — will make it to schools in Routt County, Kelly said no matter how the revenue is distributed, schools will be better off financially than they were last year. He said without additional revenue next year, class sizes in Steamboat's elementary schools could increase from an average of 23 students to 26 or 27 students next year.
"Never have I seen an approaching crisis like the one we're looking at right now," Kelly said. Proposition 103 "will offset the upcoming cuts we will likely see in the next year."
Chuck McConnell, chairman of the Routt County Republican Central Committee, spoke against the tax measure.
"It's a tax that will affect everyone in this room," he said. "It's coming at a time when unemployment nationally is at 9.1 percent, and it will decrease the amount of money everyone in this room will have to spend on the goods and services they need."
He also said voters should oppose Proposition 103 because it does not guarantee the increased revenues it collects will be given to public schools.
"There are ways to solve the problems we have with the educational quality in this state without raising taxes," he said.
— Scott Franz contributed to this article
— To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email jweinstein@SteamboatToday.com