City denies STR tax referendum due to illegitimacy, approves recall petitions
The City Clerk of Steamboat Springs decided on Thursday, July 28, to deny the petition seeking a vote on whether to put a 9% short-term rental tax on a ballot.
The clerk, Julie Franklin, approved the petitions seeking to start a recall effort against Steamboat Springs City Council members Heather Sloop, Dakotah McGinlay and Joella West.
The referendum wouldn’t have repealed the short-term rental tax, as it has yet to be voted upon. The referendum also wouldn’t have repealed the decision by Steamboat Spring City Council to put the tax on the ballot, either. If the referendum were approved and the petition obtained enough signatures, the city would be forced to have a special election on whether or not to put the short-term rental tax on a future ballot.
Confusion was one of the city’s justifications for denying the referendum petition, which was outlined in a decision released Thursday afternoon, in which the clerk found three grounds of insufficiency.
Section 39 of the City Clerk’s decision reads: “Allowing a petition to advance an unauthorized referendum is contrary to law and would create voter confusion by allowing voters to vote only on whether to have a future election on the proposed tax.”
Robin Craigen, the primary contact of the petitioners’ committee and the vice president of the Steamboat Springs Community Preservation Alliance, the group backing the petitions, was disappointed by the city’s decision.
“We’re not surprised because the city has delayed their response for absolutely the longest period of time possible,” said Craigen.
Craigen said the alliance is consulting with an attorney to review the city’s rejection of the referendum. Craigen said he and his allies feel it’s necessary to put the ballot question to another vote and wanted City Council to reconsider their stance, and possibly repeal it on the spot. He also said he would rather not go through a campaign process.
“It is a significantly more expensive business to campaign against a ballot measure,” said Craigen. “While we appreciate that that’s an option, Steamboat is a community where you can still talk face-to-face with people.”
If the petition received enough signatures to put the ordinance to a referendum vote, it was almost assured that, even if the community voted in favor of putting the tax question on the ballot, the ballot question wouldn’t appear until November 2023 because new taxes can only be passed by a vote during general elections.
Regular elections in Steamboat Springs are held in odd-numbered years, when municipal candidates are typically on the ballot. Because it’s an even year and no municipal candidates are on the ballot, “such election cannot be a regular election.”
Because the town charter prohibits referendums on actions to call a special election, and the Nov. 8 election is a special election, the city argues that the referendum defies the town’s charter.
The city claims that section 8.1 of the town charter states, “A referendum may not be commenced to seek voter repeal of the city’s actions to call a special election,” according to the first ground of insufficiency in the clerk’s decision.
In the second ground of insufficiency, the city clerk argues that the petition for referendum does not address “municipal legislation.”
The city’s decision includes a list of regular City Council actions that do not constitute “municipal legislation” subject to the right of referendum, including “levy of taxes” and “calling a special election.”
Ever since the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) passed in 1992, which requires all new taxes be passed through a public election, putting a tax question on the ballot is as close as City Council can come to levying taxes — a municipal legislation the town charter says is exempt from the right of referendum.
In the third ground of insufficiency, the city took issue with the summary printed on the referendum, stating that it is the duty of the city clerk to prepare the summary and not the petitioners, but even if the clerk did accept the summary, it would need correction because it refers to a “9% STR tax,” which the city worried might mislead voters by using the “STR” acronym instead of spelling out short-term rental.
The recall petitions were submitted by the same petitioners’ committee as the referendum, who cited the council members’ support for the short-term rental tax ballot question and the short-term rental overlay zone map that was passed earlier this year.
Sloop, McGinlay, and West were part of the majority 6-1 vote that put the short-term rental tax on the ballot.
The petitioners have 60 days to gather around 1,000 signatures, 10% of the registered electors in the most recent election, and if successful, City Council would set a date for a special election where the candidates would have to win a majority vote to retain their seat.
To reach Spencer Powell, call 970-871-4229 or email him at spowell@SteamboatPilot.com
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