RIDGWAY – As thunder rumbled outdoors and the rain lashed down out of a blackened sky, an equally stormy atmosphere pervaded the Ridgway Town Hall meeting room last Thursday night, Sept. 5. Here, at a hastily convened special meeting, the Ridgway Town Council bowed to pressure from members of the local business community, unanimously voting to remove the $2.7 million Streetscape bond initiative from November’s ballot.
Representatives of this business coalition – including Darin Hill of Mountain Market and Tammee Tuttle of the True Grit Café and others – had met privately with Ridgway Mayor John Clark and Town Manager Jen Coates on the previous evening, revealing plans to execute an aggressive, negative publicity campaign to defeat the measure if it went to ballot.
Time was of the essence for council to meet and deliberate on the matter, because last Friday, Sept. 6, was the deadline to finalize ballot language for November’s election.
“We are here tonight to try and hear concerns ... and discuss anything from completely pulling the ballot question to amending it,” Clark began.
He explained that many of the members of the opposition group, including those who had met privately with himself and Coates, were former Streetscape committee members who had become disillusioned with the project as they felt it veered in a direction they did not approve of in terms of cost and scope.
“The group is prepared to go to court and picket Town Hall to get as much Colorado media, if not national media coverage as possible,” Clark explained to council.
Hill then stood and informed council that he estimated as many as 95 percent of Ridgway’s commercial property and business owners opposed the town bond in its current form, and that they were poised to form a well-funded issue committee “with a law firm retained and committed to defeating this.”
The clock was ticking, Hill warned.
“If this thing isn’t off ballot, starting Tuesday, we will have the town plastered with signs,” he said. “We will advertise in local media and will have protesters. We will reach out to statewide media to tell our story. We will use all means to defeat this. This group isn’t here to negotiate. It [the bond initiative] needs to come off the ballot. We need to come up with a plan we can all embrace.”
Hill then heatedly took Clark to task for audibly sighing in a manner he felt was disrespectful.
“Honestly, the reason I sighed was because I am very concerned and very upset,” Clark retorted. “I don’t understand how we got here. Obviously, we have different takes on the same reality.”
Clark argued that he had stood up for the business faction “at a lot of Streetscape meetings,” working to scale back the project to a level they could be comfortable with.
“I am not looking to negotiate either,” Clark said. “But I want to try to head off an incredibly unpleasant situation for all of us. I don’t think anyone wants that.”
Clark maintained that council has had its own reservations about the Streetscape ballot question, but reminded those in the room that the reason they had decided to pursue the bond initiative was because of recent financing opportunities that had surfaced to significantly reduce the overall cost of the project to the town.
“Now, here we are and we have got this incredibly divisive situation that I don’t think any of us want,” he said.
The $2.7 million bond initiative was intended to help fund Ridgway’s Historic Business District Streetscape Plan, first proposed in 2006, which calls for infrastructure and aesthetic improvements to Ridgway’s core business district, with the hope of drawing motorists off the main drag of Highway 62 and into a vibrant, inviting downtown.
If the initiative had been successful, the money raised would have been used as matching funds to leverage one of two outside funding opportunities from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) that had recently surfaced to facilitate the project.
The first, a partnership project with CDOT, would have utilized a significant one time funding opportunity for federal RAMP (Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships) funds for a $13 million project to incorporate CDOT’s proposed improvements on Highway 62 with the Downtown Streetscape Plan. If the town succeeded in landing this grant, Ridgway voters would have needed to approve a 20 year, $2 million municipal bond to be repaid by a property tax increase. But ultimately, this option would have shaved $1 million off the cost to the town of implementing the Streetscape improvements while earning the town a seat at the table as to how CDOT’s Highway 62 project unfolds.
The town was concurrently pursuing an alternate Streetscape funding scenario through an application for $500,000 in grant funds from the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) Energy Impact Funds for downtown business district improvements. This option would have required voter approval of a twenty year, $2.7 million municipal bond to be repaid by a property tax increase and would have included improvements at an estimated cost of $3.2 million. Along with the bond payments, this amount would have been repaid by annual payments of $55,000 from the town’s capital improvement sales tax funds.
Due to the timing of the grant applications, council agreed to present the ballot question to voters at the consolidated election in November (rather than its regularly scheduled spring election) and hedged its bets by asking for a $2.7 million municipal bond (the amount that would be needed if the DOLA grant came through, but the RAMP grant did not). Should CDOT have awarded the RAMP grant, however, the town pledged to issue only a $2 million bond.
The town already submitted both grant applications, but their award was contingent on the town being able to raise matching funds through the bond initiative, so it is now unlikely that either grant will be awarded. The RAMP grant was a one-time funding opportunity, but the DOLA grant will continue to be available for the town to pursue in future grant cycles, should it choose to do so.
As Thursday’s meeting spun on for about an hour and a half, prominent members of the Ridgway business community ranging from Susan Baker of Lupita’s Bizarre Bazaar and Joyce Bucknam of the Adobe Inn to RE/MAX Realtor Rob Hunter and Priscilla Peters, formerly of Cimarron Books and Coffee, argued that the timing was simply wrong to burden business owners with new property taxes, as they said they are still reeling from the effects of the 2008 economic downturn.
(As a result of the Gallagher Amendment, passed in 1982, businesses in Colorado bear a disproportionate share of the property tax burden.)
Other concerns business owners expressed had to do with the confusing nature of the ballot question. With much of its language dictated by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR), the town could not adequately express the nuances of what it was trying to accomplish through the initiative, nor the fact that the “maximum repayment cost” (language dictated by TABOR) of up to $4.6 million alluded simply to the interest rate associated with the principal of the bond.
“I am personally okay with taking [the bond initiative] off the ballot to avoid this kind of a division in our community,” said Councilor Jim Kavanaugh. “We would lose the whole purpose [of the Streetscape vision] if we pass it and you [the business community] are still opposed. You are an integral part of the community. If we need to go back to the drawing board I for one am okay with it.”
In the end, after expressing frustration with the eleventh-hour nature of the discussion which left no room for compromise, and the fact that they were forgoing a significant one-time funding opportunity through the RAMP grant to improve town infrastructure, the rest of council eventually came around to the same conclusion, voting unanimously to take the question off the ballot. The business owners in the room burst into applause.
The matter is set for further discussion at the regularly scheduled Ridgway Town Council meeting on Wednesday evening, Sept. 11. While the meeting convenes at 5:30 p.m., Town Manager Jen Coates estimated that discussion on the Streetscape issue “should happen in the neighborhood of 8:30 p.m.”
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