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Miller: Low on dough in Summit County

by Alex Miller

Thinking back just a couple of years to the middle of the housing boom, I recall people wondering just how long home prices could continue to rise. Roughly a decade earlier, we were wondering the same thing during the dot-com boom. A quick survey back through the history books reveals bust-and-booms recurring with the same regular frequency as sunspots or pine-beetle outbreaks. The booms were as inevitable as the busts that followed.

Now, though, as we drag our way into the third year or so of the Great Recession, the expectation that another boom is on the horizon is markedly absent. While some of us believed this summer and the third quarter would be the beginning of a steeper climb out of the hole, it’s not entirely clear that’s the case anymore. The only thing that seems certain is that more uncertainty and grim financial pictures await us in the next few years. As property valuations dip and sales tax revenues continue flat at best, municipalities and school districts across the state are eyeing more years of pain. Just recently, Summit County Government started planning for a projected $4.6 million shortfall in 2012, while the Breckenridge Town Council in its retreat earlier this week contemplated a variety of budget rescues for the coming years.

Chief among the ideas thrown out in Breck was the no-brainer notion of adding a tax to lift tickets sold at the ski area (the so-called “amusement tax” would also be tacked onto things like theater and concert tickets and bar covers). The only thing odd about this is that there isn’t already one in place – especially considering the impacts the ski area has on the town. Granted, the town’s sales tax revenues wouldn’t be what they are without the ski area, but nor would it have the enormous staff (170 full-time employees!) and service needs. Vail Resorts, which happily charges a 5.9 percent tax (or, OK, “resort fee”) at Keystone should be comfortable with the idea that, to provide the services and experiences of a “real town,” said town must be adequately funded. Even so, it’s difficult to believe Breckenridge as a municipality can’t find some more sections of that fat budget to trim.

It’s not always easy to get the knights of the Kingdom to recognize the existence of the rest of the county, so it was encouraging that new councilmember Mark Burke cautioned against asking voters to approve any new taxes this fall when the Summit School District will almost certainly be doing the same thing. Do some more work on a mix of solutions, work with VR, and come around to voters next election cycle when, hopefully, the economy has picked up a bit.

Perhaps the most innovative idea to come of the town’s retreat is the notion of building a reservoir north of town. With population and water-supply predictions for the coming years even more dire than budget scenarios, any headwater government that can sock away water for later sale is making a wise investment in its future. Of course, the water rights and reservoir business is a tricky and expensive arena, so the numbers will need to square well before moving ahead. Any town that can find solutions to budget slumps that don’t include new taxes or cuts to staff or service is bound to be in a better place, and it’s true what Breck town manager Tim Gagen said of the town being a leader other municipalities look to for ideas.

If ever there was a time for strong leadership and creative thinking from Breckenridge and all our other municipal leaders, this is it. There have certainly been plenty of times in the past when being a town councilmember was a cushy job that involved little more than deciding where to distribute the bountiful sales tax dollars – or when to cry “enough” at the latest mega-development. Those days are over, and it’s time to roll up our sleeves and determine how to maintain our beautiful towns and county when help from other sources is in short supply. It’s a pity that the old Summit Leadership Forum is gone and that we don’t have a strong central chamber or other entity to pull the county together as a whole. We’d gain a lot by having a better countywide plan for economic development and sustainability. Maybe a task for the county commissioners to address when Dan Gibbs joins in November …

Summit Daily editor Alex Miller can be reached at amiller@summitdaily.com or (970) 668-4618.


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