Boulder’s city, county leaders talk taxes, wages

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Friday, Feb. 14, 2020

Elected officials and staff from Boulder County and the city sat down this week for a somewhat informal — though still public — meeting to discuss issues with relevance to both jurisdictions, including pending taxes to fund affordable housing and transportation, efforts to raise the minimum wage and the possible creation of a library district.

Here’s a quick recap of the action:

Transportation tax

City council members have been sharing various figures purportedly being floated by commissioners: a .62% sales tax split between affordable housing (1/3) and transportation (2/3) was the most recent tidbit tossed out at a meeting. Last year, the proposal was for a property tax. But commissioner Elise Jones on Monday said the options haven’t been whittled down to specifics just yet.

“Nothing has been decided,” Jones said, “whether it’s housing or transportation or the cut of that or the source.” Property and sales tax tend to rise to the top as options because they “raise the most money,” … (but) the key point to emphasize is that nothing has been decided; we’re at the beginning of the conversation.

“The county is not going to go deciding anything by itself.”

Jones said a “stakeholder meeting” would likely be held by the end of February, with polling on “a couple different scenarios” to begin by April. To be worked out before polling is what the tax would fund. Jones said voters would be more likely to support improvements along major corridors: Arapahoe, Highway 119, U.S. 287, etc.

Boulder County and the cities of Boulder and Longmont have already secured $93 million in state funding to improve transit along 119, not quite half of the estimated $250 million cost. A further $10 million from the Denver Regional Council of Governments will be matched locally to conduct preliminary design work for upgrades along State Highway 7.

The city is concurrently pursuing a transportation funding mechanism. There was some discussion Monday night around timing to avoid jeopardizing the county’s ballot measure. Council OK’d the beginning of a fee study but hasn’t committed to anything else.

“We don’t have to act on it for awhile; it could sit on the shelf for a year to 18 months,” Mayor Sam Weaver said. “In order for us to not have it on the same ballot, we can adjust based on whatever’s happened at the county or state level.”

Affordable housing

A regional partnership in recent years set a goal to preserve or build enough affordable housing so that 12% of all units countywide are classified as permanently affordable. Every municipality adopted this goal, with Boulder aiming for a higher 15% target, except for Erie, commissioners shared Monday. Roughly $25 million annually will be needed to meet the goal — on top of existing funding — enough to construct or acquire 12,000 dwellings by 2035.

Discussion of possible funding for affordable housing was otherwise brief. In relation to sharing ballot space with the transportation tax, “housing sort of has dibs,” since it was pushed from 2019, Commissioner Jones said.

She also said there would likely be a “pledge of equity” from and to participating municipalities. “Money in and money out.” 

Boulder by far has the lion’s share of affordable housing, with 3,623 units. Longmont follows with 2,344. The remaining 942 are scattered throughout the county and held by the Boulder County Housing Authority. BCHA has 499 affordable homes in the works (plus 26 in Nederland); Boulder has 585 and Longmont, 389.

Affordable housing and transportation are two huge problems that are not going to be solved from one ballot issue,” Jones said. “To take a meaningful step forward on both of these would be our goal.”

Minimum wage

Support for a higher local minimum wage remains high. Councilman Adam Swetlik, who made the initiative one of his priorities for 2020, said the topic has been much discussed at the Boulder County Consortium of Cities. Swetlik represents Boulder on that body, of which the county commissioners are a part.

There’s a lot of interest around the table of all the cities,” said Commissioner Deb Gardner. “They aren’t all in exactly the same spot except they really don’t want to do it by themselves and are very interested in how do we work together.”

Only 10% of local governments in Colorado can pass higher minimum wages, a stipulation of the state statute passed last year allowing the practice. But regional efforts would count as one entity. Because of that, Swetlik and others argued, a collaborative approach makes sense.

There has not yet been discussion of what the new wage might be. It has to be phased in, not exceeding the greater of $1.75 or 15% each year.

Stakeholders, including business owners, unions and chambers of commerce, have to be consulted before enacting a local wage. The Consortium put together a possible working group, to include members from dozens of local organizations.

The hope, Gardner says, is to have the group formed by March with the first meeting in April. Wages can’t be legally raised until January 2021, as councilman Aaron Brockett noted, referencing community please to move faster.

“We have a whole year to figure this out,” he said.

Read more on efforts to raise the minimum wage from the Daily Camera:

Boulder City, county leader, restaurants prefer regional minimum wage hike

County consolidation

It was decided earlier this year that Boulder County will not co-locate with city staff at Alpine-Balsam. But the county still wants to put health and human services in one central hub, as it did in Longmont.

A sole location reduces the burden on residents who access services across multiple departments. Just over 1/3 of county clients live in Boulder, according to Jana Peterson, county administrator. Little less than 1/3 reside in Longmont, while the remaining third are spread throughout the county.

At minimum, 120,000 square feet will be needed to accommodate the consolidation. Looking 30 years out, as officials would prefer, 210,000 square feet would be more appropriate.

That suggests something like 30 acres,” Peterson said. “That limits our options in Boulder pretty significantly.”

We’re hopeful there are places in Boulder that we can find,” Mayor Weaver said.

Online portal

Whatever happens in the physical world, the city and county may find cohesion in providing online connections to services. Boulder in the fall announced it had partnered with Google’s philanthropic arm to develop an online portal of sorts for programs, services, discounts and rebates available to residents.

As it turns out, one of the major users of such a tool are county employees, seeking resources for their clients. Additionally, many of the most sought-out offerings are under the purview of the county.

For right now, the portal is focusing on city of Boulder programs and services only. An initial list of 238 was whittled down to about a dozen of the “highest impact,” said Yvette Bowden, director of community vitality.

Residents accessing these offerings are likely to be eligible for state and county programs as well. Pending council feedback, Bowden said the team behind the project will begin coordinating with county staff as development progresses.

A prototype is being used in the community now. Council will get a preview at an April 14 study session.

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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