BY FREDA MIKLIN
In a presentation to the Greenwood Village City Council on July 19, Nancy Sharpe, current Arapahoe County commissioner and former GV mayor, talked about the significant value that the residents of Arapahoe County, including Greenwood Village, receive from the county $0.025 percent open spaces sales and use tax.
The tax was first authorized in 2003, then reauthorized in 2011 to extend to 2023. Sharpe explained that the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) is, “trying to get a head start” in speaking to voters about it. The Open Spaces tax, which amounts to 25 cents on every $10.00 spent, is used to 1) build and maintain trails, 2) enhance neighborhood and regional parks and 3) preserve natural and heritage areas. Since 2003, Sharpe shared, the tax has been used to build or improve 70 miles of trails, support 168 park, trailhead and heritage-area projects, and conserve 31,000 acres of open space.
Since the program began, almost $360 million has been raised, of which $177.5 million has been shared back directly with cities and special districts in Arapahoe County. Of the remaining $182.5 million, almost $49 million has been awarded in direct grants to cities and special districts for specific projects and another $35.4 million has been used for joint projects of the county and its jurisdictions. That amounts to 71 percent of the revenue generated by this small tax being given back directly to cities, towns, and special district partners in Arapahoe County. During the years 2004 to 2020, Sharpe noted, Greenwood Village alone has received $12.6 million in sharebacks, grants and joint projects.
Sharpe also told the council that, before asking residents to re-authorize this program, the county collected public input during the past year through its master plan update, stakeholder outreach, and polling. The Open Space and Trails Advisory Board, a group of citizens who decide what projects are funded, was also engaged.
During August, the BOCC will decide whether to ask the voters to renew the tax this November with no changes in the plan for its use. Citizens groups have recommended that the BOCC make the tax permanent because it is very difficult to sell bonds for large projects when the revenue to repay them is uncertain. Sharpe explained that doing so would also save the taxpayers the costs involved in regularly renewing it.
Sharpe and Michelle Halstead, Arapahoe County director of communication and administrative services, presented a slide that showed that community polling has shown that 78 percent of Arapahoe County citizens support renewing the program. They added that 63 percent of respondents, when asked, said they would support the program on a permanent basis.
Sharpe did not shy away from the question of accountability that could come up if the BOCC asked voters to make the $0.025 percent tax permanent. She pointed out that there would still be full accountability because:
The resolution to authorize the program is and has always been by a vote of the people, thus the BOCC does not have the authority to change anything about how the funds are used, now or in the future without a new vote of the people, even if the tax is made permanent.
Arapahoe County citizens comprise the Open Space and Trails Advisory Board that makes all the decisions about what projects deserve to be funded, with no input from the BOCC.
The program undergoes a full financial audit annually, including an external review of how cities spend their shareback funds, so as to ensure that all revenues generated by the tax are spent for open spaces and recreation projects.
GV Councilmember Dave Bullock responded, “It’s an impressive number to see 78 percent who say they would vote yes (to renew the $0.025 percent tax).” He continued, “Looking a little bit deeper, only half of those people said “definitely.” He wanted to know what survey respondents were asked and to “to parcel out the definitely from those that weren’t definitely.” Sharpe read the question, “There could be a proposal that the county voters would be asked to consider in November. Please indicate, if the election were being held today and the proposal was on the ballot, would you vote yes or no…”
Halstead explained that the rating below “definitely” was “very highly likely.” Bullock wanted to know, “And were there more below the very highly likely?” Halstead explained that the “very highly likely” responses comprised 38 percent of the total. That meant that the 78 percent of respondents whom the city council was told would vote yes were a combination of those who said “definitely” or “very highly likely” when asked if they would vote to renew the tax. Bullock confirmed that the sample size was as was noted on the slide presentation earlier, then asked if the survey respondents were “spread throughout the county” and “equally distributed.” Upon receiving affirmative responses from Halstead and Sharpe, he said, “It’s a very positive response. We all know that surveys can be answered much according to the way the question is asked…”
Sharpe expressed that she believed that this survey produced even higher positive responses than earlier ones because, during the pandemic, “Many people…felt comfortable being outside, so they used the trails, they used the outside…more than they had in the past, and they learned about some places…that they hadn’t been before and what was available…There’s a greater appreciation of what we have.”
Councilmember Anne Ingebretsen complimented Sharpe for the county having been “great stewards of the citizens’ tax dollars” and said she was “delighted” at the prospect of making the $0.025 percent tax permanent. She recommended that the city council pass a resolution to support the ballot measure. The city attorney confirmed that it would be proper for the council to do so.
Bullock said, “As much as I’m very supportive of this, I would be hesitant to impose our views on residents.”
The discussion ended without any further talk of the GV city council passing a resolution of support. They could still do so before the November election.