By Toni Todd
Now is not the time, and this amount of money won’t cut it. That was the conclusion of the Gunnison County Commissioners Tuesday, when they were asked to support a proposed ballot initiative by the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority (GVRHA) that would ask voters for an increase in property taxes in support of the GVRHA. Commissioners were unanimous in their dissent, effectively voting down the request to put the issue on the ballot this November. Rather, they would prefer to wait a year, better define the request, ask for what is needed, and determine additional funding streams that will address the housing crisis long-term.
The proposed mill levy would have raised $900,000 a year, less than half what the GVRHA and county officials have determined they’ll need to mount an effective, comprehensive workforce housing campaign that meets projected housing needs.
“That’s not going to build much affordable housing,” admitted GVRHA executive director Jennifer Kermode in reference to the $900,000 figure, “but it can be leveraged three or four times.” Pleading her case for support of the ballot initiative, Kermode suggested the money would help qualify the GVRHA for grants and other funding sources that depend on community support and matching funds.
Kermode and a cadre of proponents argued that $900,000 is a start and much better than nothing.
“We have positioned ourselves so if the ballot measure passes, we can receive property taxes next year, in 2018, rather than waiting until 2019,” said Kermode. “It’s getting harder and harder to catch up with demand.”
“Do you think this will have support from the community, especially the business community?” asked county commissioner Phil Chamberland.
“Yes,” responded Kermode. “They can’t run their businesses if they don’t have employees. The benefit of having employees and making money versus the cost of paying a few hundred extra in property taxes is worth it to them.” Kermode conceded, adding, “I realize it didn’t poll really strongly.”
“I’ve already seen some signs that say no new taxes,” said Chamberland.
“If we wait longer, we just fall further and further behind,” cautioned Kermode. “Also, when you’re going to other funding sources and asking for dollars and asking for assistance, they want to see that your region understands that you have a problem. Without that community buy-in, they’re very reluctant to give you support.”
“If it happens to get defeated, then you have a conversation with your community about this issue of housing. But I don’t think it’s going to get defeated,” said former county commissioner and housing authority interim director Paula Swenson. “Jason and I couldn’t hire anybody this year,” she added, referring to her own business. “We’re struggling to keep people on because of housing.” Swenson said she’s spoken with other business owners who’ve experienced the same thing. “They were telling me, ‘don’t sit on your hands. Get something done.’”
County manager Matthew Birnie said he feels the ballot initiative, as written, falls short of what’s needed. “It generates so little money that it’s not going to help much,” he said.
County commissioner John Messner referenced a retreat that officials held to determine the extent of the housing crisis. The conclusion: it would take $1.9 million each year to meet the need.
“We also talked about bonding,” said Swenson. “$900,000 goes a lot further than where we are right now.”
“But we only have one shot,” countered Messner. “It’s not like you can ask for $900,000 now, then in two years ask for another $900,000.”
“Other communities have done just that,” said Swenson.
“I’m not convinced that this particular initiative, as it’s presented right now, solves the problem,” said Messner. “This feels like a Band Aid on a neck wound. Why not take a step back and develop a comprehensive, well-supported ballot initiative and develop a funding source that voters can approve that will solve the problem in perpetuity?”
“Why not move forward [now]?” countered Crested Butte resident Susan Kerns. “Week after week, we’re reading articles about the need for this to take care of our employees. Mt. Crested Butte council has taken real leadership. Mayor Todd Barnes was even saying, ‘I can’t get employees because they don’t have housing.’ The low-hanging fruit used to be in Gunnison, but people now understand it’s important to keep people in the community where they work.”
“I don’t think anyone at this table is going to argue that the need is now,” responded Messner. “But I think we actually put ourselves behind by putting an inadequate funding source on the ballot. My assumption is that [waiting a year and doing it right] actually gets us to the finish line faster than doing something marginal here, and then coming back” to the voters later.
“I’m with John,” commissioner Jonathan Houck added. “This is our number-one issue, but I also want us to put out something that’s successful. There are lots of folks in the business community who say, ‘Yes, employees are a part of it,’ but their overhead is a part of it, too. I’m just not sure that we have the momentum to get this across the finish line.”
“I’m not a smart guy,” said local resident and Gunnison Valley Housing Foundation representative Darren Higgins, who supports the ballot initiative, “but it feels like we’re all looking for a funding source that isn’t a property tax.” Higgins suggested that a sales tax isn’t a viable option, since the county’s is already one of the highest in the state, and he noted the GVRHA doesn’t have legislative sanction to ask for a lodging tax.
“I don’t think you’re hearing this from me,” Messner responded. “The concept in my mind is a specific pipeline of projects. That’s what we don’t have—a comprehensive, well-thought-out ballot initiative to give the voters and tell them exactly what we’re going to do with their money.”
“We’re [proposing] using this money to encourage development,” said Higgins.
“That’s not what the ballot initiative says right now,” said Messner.
“There are no projects in the pipeline because there’s no money,” said Higgins.
“The biggest affordable housing project ever in this valley is in the pipeline right now,” said Birnie. “So, to say that there are no projects in the pipeline is wrong. If you’re looking to bond with this money, that’s about five or six million bucks. Brush Creek’s probably $50 million. You had a very clear vision of what it takes to get there and this doesn’t do it. We do have a project in the pipeline that will accomplish more than this will over two years. So, it’s not like we’re doing nothing right now.”
“Some people are saying Brush Creek isn’t necessarily what we want,” said Higgins.
“That’s going to be the case with any project in this valley. I guarantee that,” said Birnie.
“If this doesn’t pass, is that throwing an anchor on momentum? I think it is,” said Houck, concerned that a poorly positioned, inadequate initiative that fails could hinder progress already being made on housing and make the ask more difficult a year from now.
Higgins cited a recent real estate agent’s ad on the radio. “It said, ‘There’s no inventory in Gunnison. If you’ve been on the fence about selling your house, now’s the time.’” He added, “Five students didn’t show up yesterday at Western [State Colorado University] because they couldn’t find a place to live.” Higgins said later that his wife works at Western and told him this. He suggested that those five are just the students the registrar knows about.
“That may be true, but we have an opportunity to develop a more comprehensive message. Because, what are you asking?” asked Birnie, referring to the ballot language.
“Do we need $900,000 for housing, or do we need $900,000 for the housing authority? That’s why there’s so much angst over this. We all recognize the problem.” Birnie asked why the GVRHA board chose to request a mill levy increase that covers only half of what’s needed.
“The board got spooked going for the whole thing,” said Swenson.
“I would say we are doing a lot,” Birnie persisted. “Asking for taxes is not the only way to get things done.”
“Maybe John is right,” said Chamberland. “We get the municipalities to put up some more to get us through this year and come up with a comprehensive plan” for next year.
“Will you commit $250,000, Phil, if the other entities commit $250,000?” asked Swenson.
“I’ll commit to discussing it,” he said.
“We have got to find revenue that flows into this from multiple directions and right now, we only have the property tax piece,” said Houck. “I just don’t know that we’re adequately prepared to be successful. This is so important. It can’t just be, ‘Yay! We believe in housing, so let’s put it on the ballot.’ To be successful, we need to have a slam dunk that the community supports.”
Houck shared his experience with a Regional Transit Authority ballot initiative that asked taxpayers to fund transportation in the valley. “Understanding that there was a clear deliverable, we went back to the public, and it passed, but only by a slim margin,” he said, implying that with a weak message and unclear purpose, it will be a harder sell.
“This isn’t, ‘housing isn’t important.’ It’s so important, we have to do it right,” he said.
Messner offered an example from Eagle County. “They told me they rushed an initiative to the ballot and they lost. The question is, why rush it right now when we can take a year to develop a strategy for a revenue stream to solve the problem?”
“Nothing that we’ve said here today means we aren’t supportive of the [Gunnison Valley Housing Foundation] and the Regional Housing Authority,” emphasized Chamberland.
“Just because it doesn’t go on the ballot doesn’t mean that my staff and I will stop working,” Kermode assured.
“And we will, too,” said Houck.
Commissioners’ unwillingness to lend their support effectively kills the proposed ballot initiative, so voters will not see a request for a mill levy to increase property taxes this fall.