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The Chaffee County Commissioners voted 3-0 at the conclusion of their Aug. 28 public hearing to approve Resolution No. 2018-46, an Envision ballot initiative that would request a 0.25 percent increase in the county’s sales tax to fund initiatives to support forest health, agriculture and managing the impacts of growth.

A crowd of about 50 people turned out at the Chaffee County Fairgrounds for the second public hearing on the subject. Commissioner Greg Felt presented an agenda that laid out the background and input to date on the ballot initiative. He noted that in 2007, and again in 2011, the Trust for Public Land had conducted polling in Chaffee County that indicated support for a finance measure that would acquire open space; however, the recession, and subsequent slow economic recovery, meant that “the political will wasn’t there for a tax increase.”

Then, in 2017, the Envision Chaffee County project started. A total of 1,500 participants spent the fall talking about common goals. Environmentalism was one of the common goals that emerged, with an emphasis on a concern for forest health, balancing tourism and outdoor recreation with conservation, and promoting and preserving agriculture.

“We had a meeting after that,” said Felt, “where we asked farmers and ranchers for input. Specifically, we wanted to know: What’s working well? What’s not working well? What are your goals/vision for your land? We knew that anything we proposed had to be at least neutral toward agriculture if not promoting it.” He added that polling results seemed to indicate broad public support for a tax increase to fund these initiatives.

Commissioner Keith Baker also addressed an issue that came up in previous public meetings about why affordable housing isn’t a focus of this initiative since it ranked as high as the environment among citizen concerns. “The environmental issue is readier (for a ballot initiative) than the affordable housing issue because of the complexities of the intergovernmental housing authority agreements already in place (in Chaffee County).

“We have identified affordable housing as our top priority, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t address other priorities.”

Commissioner Felt then moved on to the sample ballot language: “A call for an increase in sales tax of 0.25 percent, to be used to strengthen forest health, conserve and support working ranches and farms, and manage outdoor recreation.”  He gave some examples of the types of programs and projects that would qualify for grants from the monies that would be raised, and stressed that the grants would be awarded by an advisory committee similar to the one set up for the Marijuana Excise Tax funds. He outlined how the funding would be allocated: 25 percent of funds going to forest health initiatives, 25 percent going to support agriculture, 5 percent to outdoor recreation and environmental impact issues, leaving 45 percent for urgent or emergent needs in any of these categories.

The meeting was then opened to public comment. Most of the commenters spoke in favor of the proposed tax increase. Kay Krebs of Nathrop summed up the general tenor of the support. “The forest needs our help. I am afraid of catastrophic fires in Chaffee County – I personally have skin in the game, and I’m willing to pay my fair share to preserve our heritage.”

Wayne “Wano” Urbanos of Buena Vista said he was “largely in support with one significant modification: the language about ‘managing outdoor recreation.’” He recommended referring to “reducing environmental impact” instead, with managing outdoor recreation as a subset of that category.

Several commenters referred to public education on issues such as wildfire management as being key to the success of the initiatives and called for “education” to be inserted specifically into the ballot language. Felt responded, “It’s inherent in the (existing) language.”

Not all the public response was positive. A few commenters, such as Kirby Perschbacher of Salida, questioned the need for additional taxation and were skeptical that the initiatives that the Commissioners proposed would actually work. “People in this room are looking for a magic wand,” said Perschbacher. “My guys (working for me) will need less help with affordable housing when you quit stealing their tax money.”

At the conclusion of the public hearing, the Commissioners deliberated on the ballot language. Based on the input they had received, they decided to change “manage outdoor recreation” to “manage the impacts of growth.” Keith Baker made a motion to approve the wording of the ballot language as amended. Dave Potts seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously. The sales tax increase is now officially on the ballot for the November election.