City nears crossroads over trails
Construction under ‘scope as financial cap approaches
Times Staff Writer
Originally published 2013-07-25
By the end of next year, funds flowing to build the City of Gunnison’s trail system are expected to exceed a $1 million threshold.
And city leaders are beginning to consider the question of where the money will go at such time.
Ideas are circulating, including that other parks and recreation projects could use the funds, or that fees for current facilities could be reduced. But some argue that the money should be used to continue constructing new trails — especially since the city’s planned, 15-mile loop is far from complete.
‘Cap’ expected to be
reached next year
The funding for the trail system comes from the 1 percent sales tax passed in May 2007 as part of a larger Parks and Recreation initiative. The language of the 2007 ballot question specifically states the revenues from the tax go toward three projects: a community swimming pool, an ice rink and a non-motorized trail system around the city.
Bonds were issued to pay for construction of the pool and rink, but city leaders opted to utilize remaining revenues from the tax to pay for trail build-out.
Yet, a City Council ordinance put a $1 million limit on the money directed to the trails system. However, it does not prohibit City Council from further funding trails after the cap is reached.
The cap specifically limits funds accrued from a portion of sales and use tax — but not, say, grants. At the end of 2012, the total amount of revenue collected from those two sources was $840,164. At the end of 2013, that number is estimated to be just below the $1 million mark. It’s expected to exceed $1 million in 2014.
At the end of last year, $1.3 million had gone to trail construction. That’s despite some sections of trail system having yet to be completed. A draft capital construction plan identifies continued spending on the trail system through 2016 of at least $140,000 annually.
The cap, however, does not impact operations and maintenance of the trails system. Even if funding trail construction is diverted in coming years, $25,000 will continue to go toward maintenance of the trails system.
Who decides where the
money should go?
Once the $1 million limit is reached, funds previously designated for trails could go toward other parks and recreation projects.
Matt Schwartz was the co-chair of Citizens for an Active Gunnison — a coalition which pushed for passage of the rec tax six years ago.
Schwartz has some ideas about how decisions should be made regarding any excess funds.
“I was hoping the city would put together an advisory panel to say, ‘We have extra money, here’s what we’re thinking of doing with it. What do you folks think?’” he said. “I think the money should go toward keeping fees for programming as affordable as possible.”
Schwartz said he has no problem with the trails system receiving more money, but believes that’s where the advisory committee would come in.
City Manager Ken Coleman said it could be exactly that type of committee that would be a big part of revising the current Parks and Recreation master plan — which specifies priorities for funding. Once those priorities are set, then funding can be determined.
“If we see a good influx of sales tax dollars, it gives us a good mechanism to do more with the money,” Coleman said. “Investing dollars into those kinds of activities is what the voters approved.”
Finance Director Wendy Hanson noted that the current Parks and Rec master plan is 10 years old and needs to be updated. She said it’s planned to be a part of next year’s budget.
Hanson also offered the possibility that, based on the outcome of the master plan, excess funds once budgeted solely for the trails system could be divided up between numerous projects deemed priorities — including trails.
Councilors favor trails, still looking for feedback
City Councilor Carolyn Riggs noted the possibility of additions to the Community Center as a use for any excess revenue, but she also pointed to what she views as the first priority.
“I looked at the trails master plan and we have a lot of projects to complete, and mostly those are connecting portions of trails,” she said. “It’s what the voters voted for, so let’s continue to fund it. If we reach a point where money needs to be re-allocated, then let’s go back out to the people.”
Mayor Bob Drexel agrees largely with that assessment. He points to the popularity of the trail system and the need to fulfill the commitment to finish the project as planned.
“I wouldn’t say we would divert funds away from that,” Drexel continued. “We’ve planned stage three for the Community Center but that’s a ways off.”
Drexel said there are a number of ways to solicit public opinion and that after receiving feedback, City Council could vote to still fund trail construction in the city, as well as other projects.
Continued funding of the trail system is something that Gunnison Trails Executive Director Dave Wiens thinks is a good idea. It’s something he said he is seeing more of throughout the state.
Although Gunnison Trails’ focus is outside city limits, he points to Steamboat Springs’ focus on its trail system — which advocates hope to see funded by a lodging tax.
Those spearheading that initiative aim to “create the most accessible and progressive trail system in Colorado.” Steamboat’s plan calls for 46 trail projects covering more than 130 miles of trails, to the tune of $600,000 a year.
“They’re huge economic drivers, they’re huge assets to both the citizens and the visitors,” said Wiens.
(Chris Rourke can be reached at 970.641.1414)