Rob Douglas: ‘Polish the gem’
This week, while making the case that the Steamboat Springs City Council should use the lodging tax to repair and maintain existing city infrastructure instead of funding something new that could “age, break and wither,” Deputy City Manager Deb Hinsvark told the Steamboat Today, “To be the gem we are today takes capital funds. Right now, we need to polish the gem.”
Truer words never were spoken — and the City Council knows why.
Last year, after a series of public meetings, the council adopted an Economic Development Policy. The vision statement of the policy reads, “The City of Steamboat Springs will support a diverse and vibrant economy by preserving and protecting city assets and amenities, by promoting and leveraging the increased use of existing public and private assets, and by further increasing economic diversity and average compensation.”
Based upon the first clause of the vision statement, the council identified the first goal of its economic development policy as, “For economic sustainability, we must protect and preserve our existing assets.” To attain that goal, the council identified its first strategy as, “Maintain and replace city infrastructure through increased attention to deferred maintenance or needed improvements.” Finally, a bullet point under that strategy directs the city to, “Complete a deferred maintenance inventory and budget annually to address the issues — with a goal to resolve all issues within the next 15 years.”
Stated more succinctly, the Economic Development Policy — adopted by a majority of the current council — directs the council to eliminate the city’s deferred maintenance inventory throughout the next 15 years in order to enhance the city’s economic sustainability by protecting and preserving our existing physical assets.
Bottom line: Before funding new improvements and amenities, the city needs to fund repairs and maintenance for existing improvements and amenities.
A quick glance at a draft of the 15-Year Budget for Facilities Planned Maintenance finds more than 60 city-owned buildings with original construction dates representing every decade since Centennial Hall, the Mesa Schoolhouse and Elkins House were constructed in 1900. The replacement value of those existing assets is more than $70 million. Collectively, those facilities are in need of more than $5 million in deferred repairs and will continue to require more than $500,000 in annual maintenance.
But as even the most casual observer of city affairs knows, the city is not awash in money to address deferred repair and maintenance needs because the building-use tax stream that historically funded these expenses has withered to a trickle.
Enter the lodging tax.
In 1986, 71 percent of voters in Steamboat Springs said “yes” to the lodging tax ballot question that asked, “Shall the City Council of Steamboat Springs, in order to provide revenues to fund development of improvements and amenities in Steamboat Springs which will promote tourism and enhance the vitality of Steamboat Springs as a premier destination resort, and enhance the community identity, environmental desirability and economic health of Steamboat Springs, enact an ordinance levying a lodging tax of 1 percent on public accommodations of less than 30 days?”
So, here’s the rub. If the City Council temporarily used the approximately $600,000 the lodging tax adds annually to the city’s coffers to repair and maintain current infrastructure until the economy rebounds and the city’s finances are back on terra firma, would that use fall within the letter and spirit of the lodging tax ordinance?
Arguably, yes, given the wording of the ordinance and the contextual genesis of the tax — a hasty and hazy birth during troubled financial times that will be recounted in detail in a future column.
So, before the lodging tax advisory committee and the council build an irreversible head of steam toward funding a major new amenity — when the city already is behind on maintaining current amenities — it would be wise for both the committee and the council to focus on the reality that our largest and most important existing asset is in dire need of polishing.
After all, tourists initially come to town for an individual facet or two found in our environs. But it is the totality of our gemstone — Steamboat Springs — that keeps them coming back for more. Let’s polish the gem before adding another facet.
Since 1998, Steamboat resident Rob Douglas has been a commentator on local, state and national politics in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado. To reach Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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