Petitions submitted to recall three Steamboat Springs City Council members, defeat short-term rental tax

Editor’s note: While being interviewed over the phone, Robin Craigen was accidentally misquoted. He actually said, “This is, by far, not just a lodging effort.” Craigen did not say it is a lobbying effort.

Steamboat Springs city officials received petitions on Thursday, July 21, seeking to recall three City Council members, along with a referendum to repeal an ordinance that would put a 9% tax on short-term rentals on the November ballot.

The petitions call for the removal of council members Heather Sloop, Joella West and Dakotah McGinlay. Sloop has served on City Council since 2015, and West and Mcginlay were elected this past November.

City Council members pushed back against the recall effort on Tuesday, July 26, saying they stand by their policies and believe the petitions are an effort to circumvent the will of voters.

“You have an election every two years, and it’s a majority election,” Sloop said. “If someone doesn’t like a policy, they can change it at the ballot box.”

For the recall to succeed, the petitions would require around 1,000 signatures of eligible voters in Steamboat Springs — or about 10% of voter turnout in the most recent election. If the recall petitions are successful, special elections would be held for those seats.

If the referendum on the ballot question succeeds, the city’s municipal code states that the short-term rental tax then would be voted upon by the public­­­ — just as it would normally, but on a different ballot. 

“That doesn’t make sense to me,” said City Manager Gary Suiter. “It’s a referendum, but it’s already being referred to the voters, so what’s the purpose of the referendum? I don’t get it.”

The petitions allege that the City Council members have not represented the interests of their constituents and have ignored property rights in their passing of the short-term rental overlay zone and the recent tax.

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“This is, by far, not just a lodging effort,” said Robin Craigen, the primary contact for the Petitioners’ Committee and president of the property management company Moving Mountains. “This goes right across the community.”

Craigen said that with a potential recession looming, City Council’s policies on short-term rentals could cause an economic downturn in Steamboat, not just for the lodging community but for all the businesses that rely on tourism. He instead supports a 0.75% increase in the city’s sales tax and a 2% tax on lodging across the board, hotels included. 

City Council rejected raising the sales tax increase because they didn’t feel it would pass on the ballot.  

Craigen is also the vice president of the Steamboat Springs Community Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit lobbying group that opposes regulations and taxes on short-term rentals.

Including Craigen, three of the five members of the petitioners’ committee are leaders of the SSCPA — Dan Merritts, the SSCPA’s president, and Ulrich Salzgeber, who is also the CEO of the Steamboat Springs Board of Realtors. 

The other two members of the Petitioners Committee are Heather Craigen, the chief financial officer of Moving Mountains, and Alise Alias, the human resources manager for the company. 

Responding to the recall petitions, City Council members pointed to November’s election, which was seen as a big indicator of the community’s feelings toward short-term rentals, as all four of the seats that were up for election were won by candidates who were outspoken about regulating short-term rentals.

“The (recall) is attempting to deprive the citizens of Steamboat of their right to vote,” West said. 

Craigen, however, said he feels the community wants solutions for the high cost of housing and limited inventory in Steamboat, which he doesn’t feel can be solved by a tax or by regulating the number of short-term rentals in the city. 

“I think there’s a lot of people concerned about the direction that City Council took in this process, ignoring requests for data and study and analysis,” Craigen said. “I think none of us have ever seen a city council act this way with so little disregard for the economic consequences of their actions.”

Council members initially sought to levy a tax lower than the 9% rate, entertaining figures between 1% and 4%, but upon receiving estimates that the Yampa Valley Housing Authority’s Brown Ranch Development could cost around $400 million over the next 20 years, a majority of council members decided to raise the proposed rate. 

According to Steamboat’s Finance Director Kim Weber, who tries to stay conservative with her estimates, the first year of a 9% short-term rental tax could bring in over $14 million. 

The ordinance to put the short-term rental tax on November’s ballot passed 6-1 on July 19, with only Council Member Michael Buccino voting against it. With that, a minimum of three council members would need to flip their votes to reverse council’s decision. 

The short-term rental tax is written to expire in 20 years, but City Council could effectively bring the rate down to zero if a majority is in favor of doing so.

According to statistics from Ballotpedia, which started tracking the number of recalls in 2012, 2021 had the highest number yet recorded with 529 across the U.S.

Of those, the two largest categories were school board members with 233 recalls and city council members with 148.

Last year also set the record for the fewest number of successful recalls since 2012 at 25, which many political analysts suggest is an indicator of an increasingly partisan political climate.

Both the recall signature forms and the referendum signature forms are being reviewed by the city clerk. A decision will be made on the recall petitions by the end of today, Wednesday, July 27, while the referendum’s deadline is tomorrow.

If the city approves the signature forms, which is more about formatting and grammar than anything else, they may be seen on the streets within the week.

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