From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):
The results of a survey to gauge voters’ attitudes about the Colorado River Water Conservation District and Western Slope water returned some good news for the district. But due to concerns about the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, River District officials are still mulling whether to push ahead with a plan to ask voters to restore part of its original mill levy.
River District general manager Andy Mueller said the overall results of the survey, which found that 65% of respondents would support a mill levy increase, were a ray of good news in an otherwise dark time. But at the board’s April quarterly meeting, Mueller recommended that it postpone making a decision about whether to move forward on a ballot initiative until at least its July meeting.
“Given the economic devastation that is occurring throughout the district, the question we have to ask ourselves in July is: Is it appropriate to go to the voters to ask for additional funding at this time when they are suffering such great economic hardship?” Mueller said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
The River District board is considering whether to ask voters to raise its property tax rate from a quarter-mill to a half-mill, taking its budget from about $4 million to $8 million. That works out to 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value. One mill is the equivalent of $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.
According to numbers provided by the River District, for the median home value in Pitkin County — the highest in the district at $1.13 million — the mill levy would increase from $18.93 to $40.28 per year.
For several days in mid-March, River District consultant Arvada-based New Bridge Strategy surveyed about 600 residents and voters via email and phone to assess the feasibility of a ballot question. The survey results found that residents trust that the River District manages taxpayer funds wisely, and three out of five people said they would support a tax increase if it were on the ballot measure in November.
“I think, overall, this is positive,” said Lori Weigel, principal of New Bridge Strategy. “It’s pretty rare to see something testing at 60 percent or higher in Colorado these days. It speaks to the primacy of water and people’s concern about water in this part of the state.”
Survey-takers said protecting western Colorado water for agriculture and preserving clean drinking water were the most compelling reasons to vote yes on a tax increase. Eighty-eight percent found these reasons convincing. The River District is not a direct provider of drinking water, but part of the organization’s mission is to keep water on the Western slope.
Women older than 55 years old made up the backbone of support for a tax measure — 73% said they would back it. Residents across the political spectrum supported a tax increase, but it found the most support from Democrats, with 75% saying they would vote “yes.” Fifty-six percent of Republicans were supportive.
The Glenwood Springs-based River District, created in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in western Colorado, spans 15 counties: Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat, Garfield, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Saguache. The survey found broad geographic support overall, but the numbers were lowest in one key, populous county: Mesa. Only 59% of survey respondents there said they would support a tax increase.
“What it means to me is that we need to do better and make sure that if there are places that others perceive we are not speaking and advocating well for agriculture, then we need to do it more uniformly,” Mueller said.
Steve Acquafresca, who represents Mesa County on the River District board, said probably only a small percentage of voters know what the River District does, and although the River District has ramped up its outreach to Western Slope communities this year, more is needed. Those efforts, however, have been sidelined by the pandemic. The River District had scheduled a series of State of the River meetings this spring, which were canceled.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Acquafresca said. “That’s a huge disadvantage of going forward with a question in 2020 if we can’t get out and do the campaigning.”
He also pointed out that the results of the survey may no longer be valid because of its timing.
“Although some of the results look pretty good, all of that was done before the pandemic really impacted our Western Slope communities,” Acquafresca said. “Nobody had any concept of the economic consequences of this pandemic on big cities and small towns alike.”
For the median home value in Mesa County, at $218,601, the mill levy would increase from $3.67 to $7.81 per year.
River District staffers also have unveiled a fiscal implementation plan for how that additional funding could be spent should voters pass a ballot measure. Of the projected $4.9 million in additional revenue, $4.2 million of that would be spent on projects identified as priorities by local communities and basin roundtables in five categories: productive agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality.
Some representative projects that River District revenue could help fund are the White River Storage Project, maintaining flows secured by the Shoshone call and the Windy Gap Reservoir connectivity channel.
The state engineer is opposing the water rights tied to the White River Storage Project in water court over concerns that the project is speculative and that the applicant, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, has not proven there is a need for the water. The project would include a 90,000-acre-foot conditional storage right, and a dam and reservoir on the White River between Rangely and Meeker. But Mueller said it’s too early to know what specific projects the River District’s tax money might fund.
“We can’t say we would fund any one of those in particular; those are examples,” Mueller said. “We are not making a commitment to funding any of those that are listed.”
Aspen Journalism is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, supported by its donors and funders, that covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the May 8 edition of The Aspen Times and the May 12 edition of the Vail Daily.