Longtime Breckenridge local pushes ski area tax for 20 years
BRECKENRIDGE ADMISSIONS TAX TIMELINE
July 24: Vail Resorts had until this day to respond to a proposal from the town of Breckenridge to pay a 4 percent admissions tax
Aug. 11: Breckenridge Town Council discussed the language of a resolution that would create a ballot question about an admissions tax. The council decided to limit the admissions tax to the ski area and include all winter and summer on-mountain activities. Then councilmembers agreed on a 4.5 percent tax, equal to the taxes collected for the town by all other Breckenridge businesses except marijuana establishments.
Aug. 25: Breckenridge Town Council will hold a public hearing on the ski area admissions tax and then vote on the resolution.
Sept. 4: Deadline for the town to submit the ballot question to county officials so it can be added to the November ballot.
Nov. 3: Breckenridge voters will decide on a ski area admissions tax. If voters pass the tax, then the council will hold two public hearings on an ordinance that would create a new law defining the tax specifics.
Jan. 1: The town would start imposing the admissions tax on Breckenridge Ski Resort.
Carol Rockne has regularly faced government officials to talk about taxing Breckenridge Ski Area.
On July 28, however, the longtime local told the Breckenridge Town Council something she’d never said before.
“This is the first time I’m so proud of all of you,” she said. When she read that morning about the town’s decision to move forward with a lift-ticket tax, “I got so excited, I got goosebumps all over me.”
She has publicly advocated for the tax for about 20 years, after learning that the town of Vail raised its tax on Vail Mountain to 4 percent in the mid-1990s.
About 10 years ago, she started a petition to let voters decide on the tax, but she quickly abandoned that effort when she said it seemed all the people she talked to who supported the tax were connected to the ski area and fearful of their names being public.
But now, she is finally getting her wish.
On Aug. 25, the council will vote on a resolution that will put a ski-area admissions tax on the November ballot. Now, as both the town and the ski area have started reaching out to voters, she said she’s prepared to join the fight.
“I will get very active with this. I’ll get as active as I have to get,” she said.
‘I TRUST THE TOWN’
She first visited Breckenridge in 1963, when ski area lift tickets cost about $5 for the day, or about $39 in 2015 dollars.
Rockne, then a young Denver high school teacher from upstate New York, and a friend were looking for a place to practice their archery skills and were directed to a Main Street restaurant where they met a man with a funny accent whom Rockne thought was a roofer.
She found out later he was not only the owner of the restaurant and one of the founders of Breckenridge Ski Resort, he was also a Norwegian jokester and famous downhill ski racer who loved to party.
Sigurd Rockne skied for Norway in the Olympics before moving to the U.S. and teaching skiing in Aspen. Together with another Norwegian and ski industry pioneer Trygve Berge, he helped start the Breckenridge ski area in 1961, and the two became co-directors of the ski school and created the first Ullr Fest.
After the Rocknes married in 1964, Carol taught ski school, helped run Sigurd’s construction company and restaurant and worked in local real estate development and sales for 35 years.
Now, the family owns The Dredge restaurant, commercial properties on Main Street in Breckenridge and Cove Drive in Summit Cove as well as residential properties in Breckenridge, Blue River and Silverthorne.
“Of course we need the ski area,” she said, but “the biggest business in town not paying a tax to me is preposterous.”
A Warrior’s Mark resident, she advocated for annexing the neighborhood into the town of Breckenridge as she said she and other neighboring property owners should pay taxes to the town.
Sitting at her home on Broken Lance Drive on Sunday, she said repeatedly that the tax is decades overdue. She asked why Vail Resorts can’t do in Breckenridge what it does in Vail and will do in Utah, pointing to a September news article in The Park Record about ski-area taxes after the company acquired Park City.
“They have to trust the town like we trust the town to spend that money for our benefit,” she said to the council on July 28. “We’ve been a cash cow for them. They’ve used that money to buy ski areas and other things everywhere, and they have not done for us like they have done for Vail, and I trust the town to do the best.”
THE BATTLE CONTINUES
Rockne said the tax funds shouldn’t be tied to parking and transit, as town officials have indicated the money will support, and should instead be used for childcare, housing, sidewalks or whatever else the community deems important.
“The town has given them everything that they ever wanted,” she told the council on Aug. 11, noting infrastructure improvements, density transfers, water rights agreements and other development approvals.
Breckenridge Ski Resort COO John Buhler told the council the company has received about 700 emails from skiers and snowboarders from around Colorado and the country who strongly oppose the tax, 40 percent of whom have said they will boycott Breckenridge.
Rockne gave the councilmembers printed copies of an email signed by and recently sent to Vail Resorts pass holders that describes the tax proposal and the company’s position and ends with an invitation to email the company their comments.
“It’s disingenuous,” Rockne said, implying that the resort solicited those emails while omitting that the gondola lots already have parking requirements in a development agreement with the town. “It is all about Vail’s profits. That’s all this is about.”
Vail Resorts representatives have maintained that the company opposes the tax because the town is in a strong financial position and has not put forth enough details about the parking and transit plan. Plus, the company doesn’t want skiers and snowboarders to pay for a garage they might not use.
Vail Resorts has hinted it will fight the tax in court. Company representatives have questioned the town’s authority to impose the tax — which town officials have disputed with a 2001 Colorado Supreme Court decision — and have said the town may have violated open meetings laws if councilmembers decided to move forward on the tax during closed executive sessions.
“This question will become a national issue and likely will be subject to years of litigation,” Buhler told the council. “While we oppose this tax because we don’t think skiers should have to pay it, we’re even more upset about how rushed this process has become.”
Mayor John Warner compared the town’s current relationship with Vail Resorts to a rocky marriage.
“We’re not sleeping in the same bed right now, but I think there will be better times in the future,” he said.
He said he personally supports a smaller garage than the 900 spaces proposed for the F-Lot, and he hopes the town can model its transit after Vail’s more frequent bus services.
Town officials previously said they envisioned a new admissions tax would apply to all for-profit businesses who sell tickets or charge for registration, including The Speakeasy Movie Theatre and athletic races. However, the council decided Aug. 11 to limit the tax to the ski area — which doesn’t pay sales tax — and capture all winter and summer on-mountain business.
“I just don’t see this as punitive in any way. We pay taxes on everything else we do within the town of Breckenridge,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Lawrence.
Mayor Pro-Tem Mark Burke, who owns Burke and Riley’s Irish Pub, recused him from that part of the discussion as his business charges for a couple events a year.
Then the council decided to draft the ballot question with a 4.5 percent tax, which is what all other Breckenridge businesses with the exception of marijuana establishments collect for the town. A 4.5 percent tax could add about $35 to the $769 Epic Pass and about $8 to a $149 lift ticket, though Vail Resorts officials have not said exactly how they would collect the tax from resort visitors. Skiers and riders have not seen the town of Vail’s tax when they pay for season passes.
The council will take more public input and vote on the ballot question at its next meeting on Aug. 25; if the tax passes in November, the council will hold two public hearings to make the tax law.
The ski area could be required to collect the tax as soon as January, which would be cause for celebration for Rockne.
“It’s something Breckenridge needs,” she said. “They should pay their fair share.”
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