Breckenridge, Vail Resorts lift-ticket tax agreement a study in compromise
In less than a week, Breckenridge Town Council members and local Vail Resorts representatives went from battling over a lift-ticket tax to joking about enjoying drinks together.
On Tuesday, Aug. 25, hours before a council vote that would finalize a 4.5 percent lift-ticket tax proposal for the November ballot, the town and the resort company hammered out an agreement that earned unanimous support from every council member and applause from a packed council chamber.
“It’s a historic event for the town,” said Jerry Dziedzic, a resident representing a committee formed in support of the tax, on Wednesday. “This is a town that’s been making history for more than 150 years, and it’s done it again.”
Vail Resorts brought the agreement to town officials on Friday, and the two parties went back and forth over terms four or five times before finalizing the wording, Mayor John Warner said. “In a matter of three and a half, four days, we’ve come up with this negotiated agreement.”
The agreement has multiple parts. The world’s largest resort company agreed not to oppose, or campaign, against the proposed 4.5 percent tax as long as it excludes season passes, multi-resort lift tickets and summer activities. Vail Resorts also won’t sue the town if the tax passes.
The tax would start in the 2016-17 ski season and apply to all single-day and multi-day Breckenridge Ski Resort lift tickets, regardless of how or where they are bought.
The tax would still be tied to a new fund dedicated to transit and parking improvements, as the council decided at its Aug. 11 meeting, and the ski area agreed to continue to provide transit services at, or above, its current level.
The most important part of the agreement to many was the company’s $3.5 million annual guarantee, which would increase each year for inflation by 1 percent to 4 percent, based on the Denver-Boulder Consumer Price Index.
The deal also specifies that if taxes amount to more than the guarantee, Vail Resorts could save the excess to cover any deficits in the next two years.
For example, in 2017, if tax receipts total $3 million, Vail Resorts would be obligated to pay the town the $500,000 shortfall. If the receipts totaled $4 million, the resort company could save the extra $500,000 to cover deficits in 2018 and 2019, but not 2020.
The agreement would end if a future town council were to expand the lift-ticket tax to include more ski area activities or admissions. In that case, Vail Resorts would no longer have to guarantee the town the adjusted $3.5 million, but the tax would remain.
Council members acknowledged that the ballot question they planned to approve Tuesday would’ve generated more revenue for the town, but the compromise improves the town’s relationship with its largest employer.
“The fact that it won’t be a fight, that’s a major benefit to me. I could probably friend Kristen Williams on Facebook again,” Councilman Mark Burke said to laughs.
He said he wholeheartedly supported the deal because it avoids expensive, lengthy litigation and doesn’t tie the hands of future councils to tax the ski area’s other sales if, for example, summer revenue grows.
Plus, “this does not really impact probably the majority of our locals who buy season passes,” he said.
Councilwoman Elisabeth Lawrence called Vail Resorts’ recent campaign against the tax disheartening and ugly. Though the agreement was not ideal, she supported it because she said the town must move forward as soon as possible on its parking and transit plan.
Councilman Ben Brewer noted that he had created a list of 10 reasons why the agreement wasn’t best for the community.
“I might’ve been the one with the furthest to travel from skepticism to acceptance,” he said, “but at the end of the day, doing a deal involves compromise.”
He implied that the town wasn’t compromising much if comparing the outcome to the town of Vail’s lift ticket admissions tax, which brought in about $4.4 million in 2014.
“All along, my mantra has been, ‘Why can’t we have the same as the town of Vail gets?’ and this agreement, I can tell you without hesitation, achieves that,” he said, explaining that the resort company doesn’t pay anything for transit operations in Vail while it pays about $1 million a year in Breckenridge.
All the council members echoed sentiments that they hoped the agreement would pave the way for future business with the ski area and urged people to vote for the tax.
“This agreement should begin a new era of cooperation with the ski area. We still have significant, very significant, issues that we still need to solve,” Brewer said. “We still are going to have a public vote, and that vote has to be yes for this agreement to take effect. There is no agreement without a yes vote on this tax.”
Warner thanked the parking and transit task force members who have met regularly over the last eight months and thanked the handful of town staff and Vail Resorts representatives who facilitated the deal.
“I look forward to many more talks with Vail Resorts,” he said and addressed Vail Resorts president of mountain operations Pat Campbell. “I know it started feeling personal for a while the last couple weeks, but, to me, that’s in the past.”
Campbell, who was Breckenridge Ski Resort COO from 2009 until this summer, said throughout the company’s discussions with the town, the two sides differed only on small pieces of the parking and transit funding puzzle.
“What grounded us in the end was what was right to do for the community,” she said. “Thank you for your leadership, your patience, your support.”
Close to 100 people in the council chamber Tuesday night prompted someone to crack a door to cool the room, and some Breckenridge residents stood against the back wall to witness the end of a fight that publicly escalated over the last month.
Residents Jeffrey Bergeron, Jerry Dziedzic, Dan Corwin, Rick Hague, Hal Vatcher and Therese Dayton each spoke in favor of the tax agreement.
No one has questioned the need for better parking and transit, Bergeron said, but he had questioned the town’s agreement as not going far enough.
“I came here when there was unlimited parking and 10 single women. It’s changed so dramatically,” he said to laughs before becoming more serious. “Like everybody else, I have spies in Broomfield, and I was aware of what was going on, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.”
Tuesday night, after hearing the council’s reasoning about the deal, he changed his mind.
“I came back just to say thank you,” said Bergeron, who served eight years on the council. “I’m comfortable that this is going to be good for the community.”
“Vail is going to benefit from this as much as any business. They’re the largest employer, and their employees need to get to work,” he added.
No one spoke against the tax question, but Dayton, a resident for 30 years whose family runs the Breckenridge Nordic Center, said she wouldn’t have supported the tax just a few days before.
“I am so pleasantly surprised that you have come together in a point of agreement, and I think that there is power in that,” she said.
When the council voted unanimously to send the new tax question to voters, the room broke out in applause.
Dziedzic said Wednesday that he bumps into Vail Resorts executives at the grocery store.
“It was a disappointment to many people when it seemed like Vail Resorts and the town were going through a divorce,” he said. “The town and the ski resort are joined at the hip.”
The last-minute agreement forced the committee, 2A for a Better Breck, to rethink its efforts. Still, it plans to focus on educating voters and encouraging them to support the tax.
“We expected there to be some very strong opposition, and we were making plans accordingly,” he said. “I think it surprised many people that there was not someone who opposed it, so maybe that speaks to the strength of the deal.”
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