Our view: The city's mill levy

The Steamboat Springs City Council has its work cut out in deciding how to fine-tune its five-year capital improvement plan.

If the city hopes to get a proposed 3.55-mill property tax approved in November, the council had better keep the plan lean, placing priority on essential services and whittling down costly projects that benefit only a few. The city also should take a hard look at its operating budget. City fiscal policy calls for 15 percent of operating revenue to be set aside to fund capital improvements each year; however, the city is falling short of this goal. The city owes it to its residents to operate on a lean, well-planned budget.

The 3.55-mill tax would be dedicated to fire and ambulance services, but the city's primary objective is to free up what it spends on those services -- about $1.3 million -- to set aside for capital improvements. A previous attempt at a similar mill levy failed last year, in part because the city focused almost solely on the fire and ambulance aspects of the proposal and did not do a good job of defining exactly which capital improvement projects would be funded by the tax.

This time around, the council is ready to offer a project list and associated costs to voters. About 98 projects totaling more than $38 million over five years have been identified in the plan. About 30 of those projects -- totaling $6.75 million -- are tied to the proposed property tax. It is important to note that these projects are not set in stone. Rather, they are the city's best guess of what it needs.

The City Council is scheduled to take one more look at the list before finalizing the plan. Among the expected changes is cutting $250,000 so that money can be redirected to Yampa Valley Regional Airport for terminal improvements. We would agree with that change, which was advocated by Councilman Paul Strong. And we agree with Strong that connecting baseball field improvements to the proposed tax could doom it to fail, given the emotions tied to Triple Crown tournaments.

Many of the items in the capital improvement plan that are not connected to the proposed property tax appear to be essential improvements. They include replacing vehicles, making street improvements and upgrading the city's water and wastewater systems. As City Manager Paul Hughes noted, these are not items that are going to help the city sell a new tax, but are necessary. "There are a lot of items on this capital improvement list that are really unsexy items," Hughes said. "But all of them are important for us to be a very good city."

But there also are items on the list for which the city has a tougher time making a case. For example, the city has listed replacing the tennis bubble at a cost of $1 million and building a new clubhouse at Haymaker for $3.96 million in the plan. Neither of those projects is connected to the passage of the property tax, but traffic signal installation, Mount Werner Circle improvements, the Ski Time Square Turnaround and trail improvements are.

If the council wants this 3.55-mill property tax approved, it should be careful not only with the capital improvements it plans to complete if the tax passes but also with the projects it plans to fund even if the tax fails. Council members get one more shot to go through the plan. They would be wise to use a fine-tooth comb, making sure the projects they include are necessities and that the cost estimates are conservative. Taxpayers deserve nothing less, especially when the city is asking them for something more.

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