Douglas County won’t ask to extend open space tax this year

Two commissioners balk at taking question to ballot

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After a disagreement among the county commissioners, Douglas County won’t ask voters this year to renew the Open Space Sales and Use tax — currently planned to sunset in January 2024.

Two of the commissioners, Lora Thomas and George Teal, said during an Aug. 2 work session that they didn’t want to pursue the ballot measure out of fear that it would fail. Both said they’d like to ask voters the question during the next possible election cycle, in 2023. Commissioner Abe Laydon voted in favor of taking the question to a vote this year.

“I think we’re gambing with the people’s land, their open space, their way of life by waiting until the last minute,” Laydon said.

The Open Space Sales and Use Tax, which funds acquisitions and maintenance of county open spaces, trails, parks and historic sites, is a tax of 0.17% and is included in the county’s 1% sales tax. In 2017, the fund was used to purchase Sandstone Ranch, a 2,038-acre property now available to the public for hiking, biking and equestrians.

Commissioners began discussions about the extension of the tax in 2020, according to a county spokesperson.

Teal and Thomas diverged on some of their reasons for disapproving the ballot item this year. Teal focused on concerns about “anti-tax rhetoric” that he anticipates will be strong during the coming election season. 

“It’s just adding up to me to be not the right time,” he said. “It’s going to be a tide of anti-tax fervor.”

During her comments, Thomas said she didn’t think it would be possible to pull an effective campaign together in time for the November election, adding that campaign signs would need to be out by mid-September.

“As much as I support open space ... I don’t have the energy to get this campaign going and get it on the ballot and get it across the finish line. It’s too late for me,” she said.

Thomas pointed to a 2019 ballot measure that narrowly passed as part of her reasoning. The ballot item, labeled 1A, asked voters to move a portion of the same 1% sales tax from the justice center to roads. It was approved with 52% of the vote.

“1A two years ago was miserable, it was awful,” Thomas said. “It was done at the last minute and I told myself after that I’m not doing another campaign like this.” 

Laydon said he was ready to move forward with the open space campaign.

“This is very disappointing news,” Laydon said to the other commissioners.

In April, a professionally conducted survey of county voters showed that eight in 10 residents supported extending the tax. About half of those supporters said they want to see it approved for an extra 15 years and the other half said they wanted it approved permanently. 

“If (a 15-year extension) were put on the ballot it would pass overwhelmingly in my opinion,”  the research consultant said at the time.

Brian O’Malley, the chair of the County Open Space Advisory Committee, said during the work session that he would prefer that the ballot question be asked this year. He also spoke about how, without an extension approved this year, the open space program would be limited by its indefinite future budget.

“With regard to future acquisitions, what will be our position, say if we get another Sandstone opportunity in the next two years?” he asked.

Cheryl Matthews, the county’s director of open space, said the budget currently has about $9.5 million in it.

“That would not acquire anything like a Sandstone Ranch. It might acquire some smaller property,” she said. “I would be reluctant to try to spend down that balance not knowing if the sales tax would pass in ’23.”

Another factor being considered by commissioners is that the Town of Castle Rock is likely to ask four tax-related ballot questions in November, including three outright tax increases and a 10-year pause on TABOR. The pause of the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights would mean residents would no longer get a tax refund under the bill. 

The town is asking these questions because it needs about $13 million in new revenue to meet the needs of rapid growth there, said Town Manager David Corliss. Castle Rock approved the questions on first reading July 20 and will vote on the second reading Aug. 17.

Teal said that the tax questions from Castle Rock along with other possible questions about tax increases at the state level would sour the issue for voters.

“My concern is that our message is going to get conflated to what else is out there,” Teal said. 

Laydon, whose seat is up for re-election in 2022, said he felt that in spite of these questions from Castle Rock, people would be supportive of the open space tax because it’s a continuation of a tax rather than a new one.

“I may not be here in ’23 and this was certainly a commitment and a promise I made to my citizens so I can’t tell you how disappointed I am,” he said.

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