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Damian Musello hikes with his dog Lyra on Friday at Chatauqua Trail in Boulder. The Open Space and Mountain Parks Department is developing its first master plan, partially in an effort to improve users’ experiences.
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Boulder City Council on Tuesday discussed potential ballot measures members would like to see — or not — for the November election.

Council showed interest in having voters weigh in on a tax increase to support the Open Space and Mountain Parks department, as well as a ballot measure that would allow the city to continue work on a down payment assistant pilot program to help middle-income homebuyers.

Council deferred several issues, including a natural gas tax, to reexamine in years to come.

The discussion Tuesday was part of a study session, and council will hold a public hearing on proposed ballot measures later this summer. Here’s how the 2019 ballot is shaping up so far, though:

Open Space and Mountain Parks funding

The Open Space and Mountain Parks department is facing a steep decline in revenue, which department leaders have been bracing for in recent years, but which council might look to alleviate.

A 0.11-cent sales tax previously used to fund the department transferred to the general fund in January, and an additional 0.15-cent sales tax from which the department receives the proceeds will be transferred to the transportation department in January 2020. Between that and the ending of a general fund transfer, the department is facing an approximately 30% reduction in revenue.

“Our whole philosophy has been scaling back and phasing and stretching out,” said Dan Burke, interim department director. Rather than eliminating programs or laying off staff, the department has prioritized scaling back programs and relying on employee attrition, he told council.

Council expressed various concerns about the cutbacks, including what that would mean for the department’s acquisitions of new land. Burke said the department has completed, roughly, 80 to 85% of its acquisitions, but at least 7,000 acres of lands remain that are of high interest to the city.

Council members Aaron Brockett and Mary Young also said the city needed to prioritize in the face of other pressing needs.

“I’m thinking about this in the context of other priorities that we have, affordable housing being one of them,” Young said.

The majority of council, though, supported a poll to check voters’ sentiments about a tax increase, as well as their broader priorities for city funds.

Down payment assistance pilot

Council also supported progress on a proposed down payment assistance pilot program for the city’s middle-income workers and residents.

Yates and Weaver initially proposed using the city’s bonding capability to create a pool of funds to assist middle-income homebuyers, but since their original proposal they zeroed in on the idea of using a loan-loss reserve fund rather than the city directly lending money.

On Tuesday, they said that second option might pose undisclosed legal issues, outlined in a confidential memo to council, so they proposed a ballot measure that would allow voters to approve both methods to give council flexibility and options as the program solidifies.

A working group, including industry experts and local lenders, have identified that the program’s multi-year obligation would require a TABOR vote, even though taxes would not increase.

“I’d be real interesting to know if this program is something that would appeal to the people it’s targeted to,” Mayor Suzanne Jones said. “Is there any way to get a sense of it?”

Councilman Sam Weaver replied: “That’s the point of the pilot.”

Council gave a nod of support for moving forward with the development of the proposed ballot measure.

Library funding

Council did not reach a consensus on how they might react to a petition by the Boulder Library Champions group to form a library district.

Brockett, for his part, said they should let the voters decide.

“We all know the library needs more funding,” Brockett said. “I think we’ve nearly unanimously agreed that we support additional funding for the library. The question is how to do that. Well, the Boulder Library Champions have essentially picked that ball up and run down the field with it.

“… I would really urge us not to try to step out of the process.”

Other council members, though, questioned a recent poll and the corresponding analysis of it by the Center for Research and Public Policy, and how that would play into their decisions.

“I have very low confidence that we got good information from him,” Councilman Bob Yates said, citing a conversation with a local pollster who questioned the analysis and methodology. “I feel more blind than if I didn’t have a poll at all.”

Some also questioned the proposed library district because petitioners have outlined a property tax of up to four mills, and the proposal also would likely mean leasing or donating the library’s assets to the district.

Council decided to have a public hearing on the matter to coincide with its public hearing on other ballot measures and to let community members weigh in on not only the idea of the district, but also how they would like to see the city tackle the library’s funding shortfalls. Council also asked city staff to examine whether they could conduct another poll in time to check the original pollster’s findings.

“We have made it clear we need to provide a steadier form of funding to our library,” Jones said, later adding, “If we say no to (a district), we better be saying yes to something else.”

Not coming this year

Council did not move forward with a proposal to have an assistant report to each council member. It instead decided to see how a pilot, with one assistant to the entire council, goes before revisiting the matter.

It also did not move forward with a natural gas tax, or a tax on second homes, which would tax vacant homes to fund efforts in the city such as homeless services or affordable housing. Members liked the idea but suggested it be added to the next council’s work plan.

“I’m a little concerned we’re moving pretty quick … but I would like to put (a second home tax) on the work plan for next year,” Weaver said. “After a new council is seated, we can talk about that.”

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