RIDGWAY – There’s never a perfect time to ask a struggling community to raise its property taxes. Nonetheless, the Ridgway Town Council concluded at its meeting last Wednesday evening, Aug. 14, there will never be a better time than now to move forward with a bond question to help fund Ridgway’s Historic Business District Streetscape Plan.
After an hour or so of soul-searching discussion, with no community members present other than the press, council voted unanimously to put a $2.7 million bond initiative on November’s ballot to finance the long-simmering Streetscape plan. If the initiative is successful, funds will be used to leverage one of two outside funding opportunities from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) that have surfaced to facilitate the project.
Per state statute, the ballot language for November’s election must be set by Sept. 6.
The basic idea of the Historic Business District Streetscape Plan, as first proposed in 2006, is to draw motorists off the main drag of Highway 62 that bisects the community and into a vibrant, inviting downtown. The plan calls for infrastructure improvements that include paving a few central blocks of commercial downtown Ridgway, building new parking lots, and realigning Railroad Street. It also envisions extensive tree planting, new lighting and signage, and wide curbs and sidewalks with benches and bike racks, encouraging a pedestrian and bicycle-friendly downtown core. The cost of the project is estimated at roughly $3.2 to $3.5 million.
The proposal fell victim to the economic downturn of 2008 and for years was put on the back burner. But now, with the economy showing signs of picking up once more and fresh energy percolating in Ridgway around the synergistic Creative District and Main Street Initiative projects, residents have shown some interest in recommitting to the Streetscape Plan.
Over the past several months, the plan and its various funding scenarios have been presented to the community in great detail, with workshops held in both June and July, on the heels of a community-wide survey conducted earlier this year. Nevertheless, councilors last Wednesday felt uneasy about making a decision about the proposed ballot question within a void.
“Oh, the crickets are so loud,” Councilor Ellen Hunt said of the practically empty meeting room.
“I am really uncomfortable there is no one from the public here,” Councilor Eric Johnson agreed, worrying that perhaps the community is simply “resigned to fact we are pushing this down their throat.”
Since the last Streetscape workshop held in mid-July, council has received one letter of support from a town resident, and mixed views on the street, about the merits of the proposal.
“I heard from business owners who are not for it, for financial and philosophical reasons,” Johnson reported. “They just don’t see the need.”
“I think it boils down to ‘no new taxes,’” Hunt said.
“I feel we really have heard a diversity of views and have a pretty good sense of different perspectives,” Councilor Jim Kavanaugh countered. “There are concerns as well as hopes out there.”
Kavanaugh stressed the potential social and cultural merits of the Streetscape proposal. “The missing piece in this town is a more clearly defined hub, in addition to the park,” he said. “I do believe [the Streetscape improvements] will increase social interaction, not only between community residents but between us and visitors. It will increase our community pride.”
Moreover, Kavanaugh pointed out, the Streetscape project has been discussed extensively for seven years. “I think it is very unusual that an idea has such resilience and standing power,” he said. “I truly believe the reason is because it taps into a community hope, a vision, and so many people have been involved. I think that’s profound. This proposal has really been worked and refined, and connected to other initiatives. It is time to honor that. One way of doing that is by allowing people to finally vote on it. It is very deserving of a community vote.”
“We bent over backwards to give people an opportunity for public comment,” Johnson said. “The survey showed overwhelming support from the public in general. Put it on the ballot. That’s the ultimate forum.”
Council as a whole generally concurred with that sentiment, but worried whether the community would be able to understand the complex nuances of the question, and the clunky, confusing legalese of the ballot language in which it must be phrased. Colorado’s TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) Amendment strictly dictates a great deal of the verbiage that must be contained in tax increase questions appearing on ballots across the state.
A COMPLEX QUESTION
The upshot is that the town is concurrently pursuing two different funding opportunities for its Streetscape Plan.
The first would be a partnership project with CDOT utilizing a 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 succeeds in landing this grant, Ridgway voters would need to approve a twenty year, $2 million municipal bond to be repaid by a property tax increase. The town would also be required to provide $800,000 of in-kind contributions. The grant award will be announced on Sept. 20, but construction on the project would not begin until 2016.
The town is also pursuing an alternate Streetscape funding scenario through an application for $500,000 in grant funds from the Department of Local Affairs Energy Impact Funds for downtown business district improvements. This option would require voter approval of a twenty year, $2.7 million municipal bond to be repaid by a property tax increase. The grant award will be announced in December and if awarded, construction could begin in the fall of 2014. This project option would include improvements at an estimated cost of $3.2 million, and along with the bond payments, would be 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 must present the ballot question to voters at the consolidated election in November (rather than its regularly scheduled spring election) and is hedging its bets by asking for a $2.7 million municipal bond (the amount that would be needed if the DOLA grant comes through, but the RAMP grant does not). Should CDOT award the RAMP grant, however, the town would ultimately issue only a $2 million bond.
Another confusing aspect of the ballot question is that it asks voters if Ridgway’s debt should be increased “up to $2.7 million, with a maximum repayment cost of up to $4.6 million.” This “maximum repayment cost” (language dictated by the TABOR Amendment) alludes to the interest rate associated with the principal of the bond. TABOR prohibits the ballot language from being worded in such a way as to clarify this issue, however.
Council concurred that it’s a lot for voters to try to comprehend, and worried that these confusing aspects of the ballot question could be problematic and ripe for misinterpretation.
“People will plant fear,” Councilor Weaver predicted, although, he pointed out, “this is no different than going out and getting a mortgage. This is why Douglas Bruce [the crafter of the TABOR Amendment] wanted this language, is to scare people. The reality is, there is an interest cost. The principal is $2.7 million. It’s no different than a mortgage; it’s the nature of finance. We are still going to be hit by the people who are against it and will use scare tactics, but there is not much we can do about it.”
Kavanaugh expressed a different perspective. “Most people have their mind set before they vote on a bond issue,” he said. “It will come down to community education efforts and making sure we address all these questions for every person who is going to vote.”
“It will be an educational process,” Weaver said. As for the specter of the Streetscape bond question bumping up against a proposed county-wide sales tax hike on the November ballot, Weaver predicted that Ridgway residents will still be likely to “vote for what is Ridgway.”
“We live in a democracy,” Weaver said. “It’s about time; this deserves a vote.”
“Let’s put it out there and let the community decide,” Councilor Jason Gunn said. “We need to find out if it’s something the community wants.”
“November is time to do it,” Councilor Bo James Nerlin said. “Now is the time.”
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