This piece was published as a guest column in the Opinion Section of the Pueblo Chieftain on July 14. 2013. Scroll down to see a full-size picture of the front page of the section.
Recently a hike in local sales tax has been proposed to fund 6 major non-profit organizations providing important services and cultural attractions to visitors and residents of Pueblo County. The organizations that have banded together include Pueblo Animal Services, Colorado State Fair, Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center, Historic Riverwalk of Pueblo, Nature and Raptor Center and the Pueblo Zoo. While I applaud the effort to fund these important organizations, because I believe they contribute significantly to the quality of life in Pueblo (some more than others, but that’s another topic), I disagree with the use of sales tax as the primary funding mechanism.
1. Pueblo sales tax is currently 3.5%. Combined with State sales tax that’s 7.5% – already pretty steep. To me, Pueblo ought to be marketing itself as the best bargain in Colorado, a place where you can enjoy a warmer, sunnier version of the Rocky Mountain lifestyle but at a fraction of the cost paid by residents of Denver Metro and Colorado Springs. A higher sales tax rate would only serve to dilute that message.
2. Sales taxes unfairly burden low-income citizens. As a percent of income, a sales tax increase will hit low-income Puebloans harder than any other type of tax. With high unemployment and a fragile economy, the last thing we need is to squeeze those closest to the edge of homelessness, hunger or other circumstances that may push them into criminal activity or other resource-intensive public problems. Now, I don’t want to invite hikes in property tax or some other business tax either but the problem with sales tax is that it represents a more significant hit for people living at or near poverty. We need a more creative solution.
3. A sales tax increase may be a reasonable short-term band-aid to help important organizations get through another fiscal cycle but, on a long-term basis, I would prefer that these organizations remain part of the general budget and I would prefer efforts to diversify sources of revenue to properly fund ALL local public services. A higher sales tax won’t help revitalize Pueblo’s downtown core and it won’t encourage more people to choose Pueblo as a great place to retire, go to college or raise a family. Actually, it may weaken all these things by encouraging people to move outside the city where sales taxes are lower. We want to encourage people to move into the City of Pueblo not encourage flight to the periphery of the county.
That’s the list of problems I see. I don’t like to criticize without offering my own solution. So, here’s what I would propose as an alternative. I like this idea because it would both raise revenue and deter sprawl. Along with development of the Riverwalk and the Creative Corridor and other efforts to revitalize Pueblo’s central business districts we should be discouraging people from living in far out suburban and exurban locations where they increase traffic congestion and utilize city services without contributing a fair share to the property tax base or to the vitality of the city.
So, what’s the solution?
Install a toll booth on US Highway 50, just west of Pueblo Boulevard and charge a fee for all eastbound passenger vehicles (driving from Pueblo West into Pueblo). Here’s why this solution makes sense to me. First, it targets individuals who obviously want to utilize Pueblo’s amenities but don’t pay a fair share of municipal taxes. Second, it would serve to reduce traffic on US 50, the most congested stretch of road in Pueblo County. Currently, the traffic count is in the neighborhood of 50,000 vehicles per day. If we charge $1 per inbound vehicle we would generate tons of cash to keep our important cultural organizations afloat and maybe some left over to help fight crime or improve public schools. Third, this commuter tax would discourage additional sprawl in Pueblo West.
To be honest, I don’t know why anyone would want to live in PW. Better view of the mountains? Yes, I suppose. But, the wind, the dust, the acre after acre of bleak prairie land, complete dependency on a car. I’ve talked to many people who moved to the Pueblo area, decided to buy a new or newer home in PW and now regret it…a lot. Growth in Pueblo West was fueled by the same mortgage credit bubble partially responsible for dismantling the economy in 2009. Cheap land, easy credit, granite counter tops in an unsustainable location. Sound familiar? For me, it brings to mind stories of California’s foreclosure capitals, like Stockton or San Bernadino. It was a mistake then to build new houses in the middle of a barren wind-swept prairie, and it doesn’t make any more sense now.
Now, I have wonderful friends who live in Pueblo West. I don’t love them any less. But, I do wish they would move into Pueblo and help the rest of us build a great city rather than following the failed example of sprawl that has hollowed out too many urban neighborhoods and weakened too many great cities. Let’s follow a different course in Pueblo. Let’s encourage walkability, a sense of place and a strong community. Let’s discourage Southern California style urban sprawl and the resulting formation of neighbor-less neighborhoods and a car-dependent culture.
Come on, Pueblo. Let’s fund our important cultural institutions. But, let’s do so in a way that will strengthen the core of the city.
Here’s an image of the Chieftain’s Opinion page display. I like the US 50 graphic.