The Manitou Springs City Council on Tuesday rejected a measure that would authorize collection of an arts and culture sales tax approved by voters in the Nov. 5 election.
Proponents of the 0.3% arts tax have accused council members Jay Rohrer, Susan Wolbrueck, Bob Todd and Becky Elder of going against the will of the voters by failing to pass an ordinance enshrining the new tax into law and outlining where the future revenues would go.
“So much for democracy,” one of the people packed into the city's Town Hall remarked loudly after the ordinance went down 4-3. Another derided the decision as “shameful” and “appalling.”
Todd and Elder have cited concerns about the city not having a plan for how the money will be distributed among projects, despite the ballot measure stating what the allocations would be..
“We need to have more of an idea of that process,” Elder told The Gazette on Wednesday. "It's only addressing a few of our nonprofits."
Rohrer told The Gazette he voted no because he has concerns about the arts tax..
“It doesn’t take into the accounts all of the needs of the community,” he said. “You can only go and ask for money so many times.
“Just because a majority of a group of people think you should go in a certain direction does not mean that that is a wise choice.”
Todd, too, opposed the tax. During an October election forum, he said it would have "unintended consequences that will sabotage the best of intentions."
Wolbrueck didn't respond to an email on Wednesday seeking comment.
The ordinance’s passage was expected to be “perfunctory,” said Manitou Art Center Executive Director Natalie Johnson, who spearheaded the sales tax increase.
The City Charter requires that new taxes be approved by ordinance.
“This first step was just a first step that really just meant we’re going to start collecting the money,” Johnson said. “We have to believe that our vote matters and that our council and elected officials then won’t work around that vote.”
Issue 2D proposed an increase of the city’s sales tax rate from 3.6% to 3.9%, starting Jan. 1. The Manitou Springs Arts, Culture and Heritage (MACH) tax is expected to generate $400,000 or so a year, according to the ballot language.
The measure also specified that 66% of the revenue generated by the increase was to be put into a special fund for “facility improvements and operations” at the Carnegie Library, Miramont Castle Museum, historic Hiawatha Gardens building and Manitou Art and Heritage centers. The remaining 34% was to be “allocated to a special fund, for distribution by the City Council through awards and grants to foster the arts, culture and heritage” within the city.
It passed by five votes, 1,035-1,030. The razor-thin margin triggered an automatic recount, which confirmed the results, the El Paso County Clerk & Recorder's Office has reported.
It's unclear now, though, if the sales tax increase will take effect at the beginning of the new year. Mayor Ken Jaray told The Gazette on Wednesday that he didn't "have a definitive answer."
At the meeting, a city staff member suggested the increase would take effect on Jan. 1 — even though the council failed to authorize it — because a state deadline had passed.
But several city officials did not respond to calls and emails on Wednesday asking for confirmation, and a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Revenue declined to comment, saying the department is still gathering information about the situation.
The mayor voted for the ordinance but said in a Wednesday interview that it was legal for the council to reject it.
"Legally, council maintains the right to determine how and when to implement that tax increase once the electorate gives you permission to do that," Jaray said. "Even though that’s the legal answer, personally I don’t believe that’s the moral or ethical answer."
"The majority of the community has spoken," he said at the Tuesday night meeting. "Those who were against this ordinance had an opportunity to weigh in both before and during this election. And now, it seems to me we have an obligation to follow the majority of the citizens of Manitou Springs."
Council members Nancy Fortuin and Gary Smith, who cast the two other yes votes, echoed that sentiment. Fortuin said she was “embarrassed” to “see innovation die” because the council voted down the ordinance.
Johnson and other supporters of the measure hope to work with mayor-elect John Graham and the new council, set to take office January, on a plan to enact the tax.
Judith Chandler, John Shada, and Julie Wolfe were elected to at-large council seats in November to succeed Smith, Rohrer and Elder.
“We still believe in the power of this initiative to really transform the community and we’re going to continue to work to make sure that this is something that does pass,” Johnson said.