Our View: Fees are like taxes, except without a vote of the people
November 20, 2012
There's nothing flashy or exciting about upgrading a stormwater system, but it is one of those essential municipal obligations that residents expect their city government to take care of when necessity dictates it.
And so it is that the city of Steamboat Springs finds itself in need of potentially substantial upgrades to an aging stormwater drainage system. But while a yet-to-be-completed infrastructure study will determine the scope of the improvements, city officials already have floated a proposal for how the city might afford such a significant capital project. Suffice it to say we've yet to warm to the idea.
Interim City Manager Deb Hinsvark tentatively has proposed a new fee to be assessed to Steamboat Springs property owners to pay for the project. The amount of any potential fee would be dependent upon the cost of the overall project and how long the city will take to complete it.
A fee is like a tax, with the important distinction that taxpayers wouldn't first have to support it via a vote of the people. In other words, assessing a fee on taxpayers is a tool of convenience for municipalities that would rather not chance a "no" vote from residents on a tax question at the ballot box.
We can understand why cities like Steamboat would seek the path of least resistance to funding a major capital project. Replacing culverts, bridges and drainpipes is nuts-and-bolts infrastructure work with none of the glamour of, say, adding acres of usable open space or building a new community facility. But just because a city can impose a fee doesn't mean it should, and we're not swayed in the least by the argument that many other municipalities, particularly along the Front Range, use an assessed fee system to pay for their own stormwater projects.
If there is a real need for major stormwater system upgrades, then the city needs to go before its residents and make that case. Demonstrate that all reasonable funding methods have been explored — including use of the city's apparently expendable reserves — and that the city otherwise has been fiscally prudent with taxpayer dollars. Steamboat Springs is a community that has proven time and again willing to tax itself for items deemed to be of significant value to the health of the city. If the stormwater upgrades meet that standard, and if the city can show that to voters, then a property tax is a reasonable and realistic means of paying for the project.
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We'll give Hinsvark and the city the benefit of the doubt in that the infrastructure study hasn't been completed and no decisions have been made on either the extent of the stormwater system improvements or how they will be paid for. But we strongly suggest that city officials and the Steamboat Springs City Council give careful thought before moving forward with any proposal that further would burden residents without first giving them a say in the matter.