An informal town hall meeting came together in the Evergreen Middle School cafetorium at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 19 in front of a lively crowd of about 60 people.
Participants included freshman state Rep. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen and state Sen. Dan Gibbs of Silverthorne. Topics ranged from an update on the pine bark beetle to the latest transportation legislation just passed in the state Senate.
The best line of the night was probably Gibbs’ deadpan rendering of, “Let me read between the lines: You want a train,” in response to a lengthy question about the impact of stimulus funds on the prospects for mass transit in Colorado.
The Evergreen town hall meeting is modeled after the successful series of town hall meetings staged by the Conifer Area Council. Both Evergreen and Conifer are part of unincorporated Jefferson County and remain unincorporated entities without municipal governments.
The idea was spearheaded by Canyon Courier editor Doug Bell, who said many people kept asking, “ ‘Why can’t we have a town meeting like they do in Conifer?’ ” When he talked to Gerou about it, she “was very much behind the idea,” Bell said.
Thursday’s meeting was the first in what is intended to be a semi-regular event. Although the recent meeting was called on short notice, future meetings will be advertised in the Courier three or four weeks in advance. Those who would like to be notified about the meetings by e-mail are invited to contact Bell at email@example.com.
Tax incentives and beetle damage
In view of impending income-tax time, Gerou was trying to get the word out that tax incentives are available for private landowners who clean up dead wood around their homes.
A bill sponsored last year by state Rep. Rob Witwer and Sen. Mike Kopp takes effect in 2009, allowing homeowners partial deductions up to $2,500 on tree work done in “urban interface” areas. Gibbs also supported the bill, HB 1110.
The law says 50 percent of the total cost of creating wildfire defenses can be used for a deduction, up to $2,500. It applies to any private landowner who lives where there is a community wildfire protection plan in place.
The purpose is to encourage wildfire defense work that meets standards of the State Forest Service.
Gibbs, a professional firefighter, took the opportunity to push legislation addressing the forest devastation left in the wake of the pine beetle infestation.
“We have a major forest health challenge,” Gibbs said.
“There are about 2 million acres of dead lodgepole pine we have to do something about,” he said, showing a poster board with the expanding beetle territory highlighted in red.
Gibbs also mentioned his ongoing concern about the state’s transportation needs, including 126 “structurally deficient” bridges and 40 percent of roads rated in “poor” condition.
Gibbs is spearheading legislation, SB 108, known by the acronym FASTER, that recently passed in the Senate to increase the state vehicle registration tax to pay for repair and maintenance. The bill would begin the process of funding the most urgent bridge deferred maintenance, repair and reconstruction.
The “Road and Bridge Safety Fees” would be added to the registration fee according to vehicle weight. The typical car between 2,000 and 5,000 pounds would be assessed $41 a year.
“Times are tough, but we can’t wait for a bridge to collapse,” Gibbs said.
Two key provisions were eliminated in Senate negotiations: allowing an automatic annual inflation adjustment of the vehicle registration fee and establishing a mileage-based revenue commission to study pilot projects.
Gibbs said there would not be a huge funding proposal for a mass transportation project on Interstate 70 until the Preliminary Environmental Impact Statement is complete. “You have to complete the study before the major funds will be forthcoming,” he said. Progress is being made on the major “pinch points” at Georgetown and Idaho Springs, he said.
The economic stimulus money is not expected to provide a long-term source of funds.
“People have asked about the stimulus money. Why do you need FASTER?” Gibbs said. “Because the stimulus is like winning the lottery. It’s a one-time thing. It’s not sustainable. It’s not looking at the long-term challenge in Colorado.”
The stimulus money is targeted to projects that are more “shovel ready” and have already been through the environmental-approval process.
Fire Chief Garry DeJong of Evergreen Fire/Rescue announced there would be a slash collection pickup event June 27 and 28 at Evergreen High School. He encouraged homeowners to load up their trucks and bring them to the school, where volunteer firefighters will be on hand to help unload.
DeJong urged people to talk to their insurance providers for guidance as to the standards for fire mitigation.
“How much cleaning you do is the question,” he said. “It’s a very wide spectrum … . Every insurance company is using different standards.”
“The Community Wildfire Protection Plan shows that everything from east to west (in the Evergreen Fire Protestion District) is at risk,” he said. Residentsshould check the website of the State Forest Service for more information.
“We have had a very dry winter. We still have a lot of virgin trees. If (wildfire) takes off, it could cause a lot of problems,” DeJong said.
To make matters worse, DeJong said, some areas of Evergreen to the west are likely to see the effects as the beetle moves along.
Gas tax versus vehicle tax
For a while it seemed like the program threatened to detour into a furious debate about the merits of gas tax versus a vehicle tax. But the 8 o’clock limit approached, forcing the discussion to tone down.
“I’m troubled,” said Dave Schoonmaker of Morrison. “I’m very supportive of maintaining our infrastructure. The problem is, how do we provide consistent funding? The toll idea sounds like people can have every kind of green project, and then we will be like the East Coast and have tolls every couple of miles. In terms of vehicle tax, I see a problem with fairness. Some people have 10 cars and don’t drive 300 miles. Some have one car and drive 30,000 miles.”
“The problem is, nobody has had the guts to adjust the gasoline tax for 18 years,” Schoonmaker said.
“The constituents I hear from are comfortable with a small increase in registration fees and an increase in the gas tax,” said Gerou, who represents House District 25, which includes Evergreen. “Constituents are concerned about anything that is self-perpetuating. We know they need the funding, but a lot of people are sensitive to the economic issues.
“I am concerned about the billion-dollar (transportation-related) budget issue. If you have a belt-tightening, that’s not when you charge a bunch into the future.”
“Isn’t that the elephant in the room?” asked Evergreen resident Jim Peterson. “It’s about TABOR. You would have to have a vote of the people to raise the tax.”
That prompted former state Rep. John Witwer to raise his hand. “If you have a tax, it has to go to a vote of the people. According to TABOR, a user fee is user pays. The debate used to be, ‘Is this a fee or is this a tax?’ If it were a regressive tax, I would be uncomfortable.”
Bruce Daly, the local RTD representative, expressed his opinion that the road situation is reaching a crisis level.
Gibbs urged everyone to check the FASTER newsletter and keep track of the bill’s progress in the House, meaning Gerou territory (www.coloradoFASTER.com).
Gibbs acknowledged the bill is only a partial solution. “The bill brings in $200 million, and the governor’s transportation panel said we need $1.5 billion.”
Then he summed up the topic and, for that matter, the significance of the whole evening. “Cheri and I don’t agree on the components of the bill, but we agree something needs to be done. It’s a starting point.”