The Sopris Sun

Trustees go forward on energy tax, pull back on recreation tax

The Carbondale Board of Trustees (BOT), at a work session on Tuesday, moved forward with a plan to impose a tax on energy use by town residents, but turned away from a proposed new sales tax aimed at providing funds for projects involving parks, the arts, recreation and trail connections.

Energy-use tax

The so-called “energy use fee,” which would be tied to the use of electricity and natural gas in residential property around town, is seen as a way to both encourage energy conservation by town residents and to provide funding for the town’s ongoing efforts to reduce its “carbon footprint” by installing alternative-energy technology on public buildings, businesses and homes.

At a work session with the BOT, Erica Sparhawk of CLEER (Clean Energy Economy for the Region), which consults with the town on energy issues, noted that use rates for electricity and natural gas have fallen in Carbondale in recent years.

Sparhawk said that electricity use has declined six percent, and natural gas use has gone down by three percent, which she termed “very positive news,” although she stressed in a phone interview with The Sopris Sun that those figures are still considered preliminary and that she is working with area utilities to pin the numbers down more definitively.

The town government, in cooperation with CLEER and with CORE (Community Office of Resource Efficiency) is working on the details of the proposed energy-use tax, and is hoping to put the idea before the town’s voters next April, at the same time as local voters will elect members to the BOT.

According to Sparhawk’s presentation to the BOT on Tuesday, the tax, or fee, would amount to something like $5 to $7 per month on an average residential utility bill in Carbondale.

She is still working on the figures for commercial utility bills, which she said are much more difficult to average out and identify.

But in general, she said, the fee would come to “more like $25-$40 per month” added to the utility bills.

The overall effort, according to Katherine Rushton of CORE, is meant “to educate the community and drive behavior changes” about the use and conservation of energy in Carbondale.

The town has been working with CORE and CLEER for several years, subsidizing the installation of solar and other alternative energy applications on local homes and businesses as well as on government buildings and property.

Sparhawk told The Sopris Sun that while it is difficult to precisely determine the effect of those programs on bills sent to local homes, it is believed that the reduction in use of electricity and natural gas can be attributed to the energy-efficiency programming.

“At least, that’s what we think,” she said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Stacey Bernot said, “The more this moves along, the more excited I get.”

She said the overall energy-conservation program appears to be achieving demonstrable goals, and that the imposition of an energy tax (or fee) “will help create a sustainable program moving forward.”

The town has grown concerned in recent years, as its income from sales and property taxes has shrunk starting with the Great Recession in 2008. And those concerns have increased as the town’s annual take of energy-impact mitigation funds also has begun to tail off due to downturns in the Western Slope energy industry activities.

Sparhawk reported that, during a recent meeting with members of the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce, the town’s business community seemed positive about the overall energy conservation program and about the energy tax in particular.

And, she said, the utility companies serving Carbondale have been cooperating fully in terms of working out how the energy tax should be applied and collected, including an agreement that the companies will not charge any added fees to customers over and above the energy tax.

The trustees also discussed the idea of a sunset clause for the energy tax, to give voters an opportunity to assess its benefits or drawbacks at a future date and either reauthorize the tax or kill it.

The trustees, after discussing a 10-year sunset clause, decided it would be better to have the tax expire in five years so that the expiration would coincide with the town’s goal of reducing energy consumption by 20 percent by the year 2020.

“It seemed logical to do it (five years), because of the 2020 goal,” said Trustee Frosty Merriott.

Sparhawk told the BOT that CLEER is planning to host a community meeting on the issues involved in the energy tax, on Dec. 10, depending on when she can arrange for a meeting room to hold what she hopes will be a large turnout.

Recreation tax nixed

The trustees, after hearing from a delegation of the Parks & Recreation Commission, opted to put off consideration of a sales tax aimed at providing money for a variety of recreation-oriented projects and programs.

The delegation — commission chair Tracy Wilson, vice-chair Becky Moller and long-time member Rob Comey — proposed a ¼ cent or  ½ cent sales tax over 10 years, to raise money that could pay for a wide ranging wish list covering up to $600,000 worth of projects and programs.

But the trustees indicated they were not sure the proposal was the best use of the town’s limited sales-tax capacity.

“To be honest, I just don’t know if we’re there,” said Mayor Stacey Bernot, suggesting that the money under discussion might better be used for other, long-time town goals, such as establishing a town-wide circulator bus network to bring riders from all over Carbondale to the RFTA Park & Ride at the north end of town on Highway 133.

Trustee Pam Zentmyer noted that a sales tax would affect citizens’ food bills more than anything, which she was not ready to do.

And Trustee Frosty Merriott, after listening to the discussion, said, “I’m not ready to go to our sales-tax cap right now,” which he said a ½ cent sales tax would do.

He said to do that would eliminate the town’s ability to ask voters for a later sales tax in the case of some municipal emergency, and that such a tax might cut into Carbondale’s competitive stance with shoppers comparing tax levels before deciding where to go to spend their money.

Published in The Sopris Sun on November 19, 2015.