Blue Ribbon Report

The Blue Ribbon Panel on Golden’s Economic Future has submitted its report on how to close the long term gap between the City’s anticipated income and expenses.  The report is short on specific numbers, but contains two enlightening graphs.  One graph compares revenues and expenses for current levels of service, and predicts a deficit that begins sometime in 2015 and eventually grows to about $4.5 million  per year in 2030.   The other graph shows that funds available for capital improvements, including implementation of adopted neighborhood plans, the Clear Creek Corridor Plan, the Parks and Recreation Master Plan, and a backlog of Parks and Recreation maintenance work, will fall short by about $67 million.   The rest of the report describes various assumptions, trends, qualifications and methods by which the gap between annual income and expenses and capital improvements and capital expenditures might be bridged.  In a nutshell, the report says 1) Golden is in good shape for the time being; 2) there is no looming fiscal crises, but 3) over the next few years the City will need more revenue, fewer “wants and needs,” or some combination of both.  Otherwise, it looks like Golden will fall short by $110 million, more or less.

What the report doesn’t discuss is how the different choices would  affect the typical household in Golden.  So, lest Golden’s future succumb to the national clamor over whether to tax less or provide more, let’s examine the problem from the selfish point of view of a typical Golden resident.

Zillow.com pegs the average value of a house in Golden at $324,000.  In 2012, the property tax paid on that house for calendar year 2011 was  $2,202.68, not including insignificant amounts that some households may pay for flood control and rapid transit.   Golden’s share of the total tax bill was $318.25.   Yes, you read it right.  If you are a typical household in Golden, you had to pay $318.25 for streets, snow plows, parks, police protection, fire protection, city staff (the City Manager, public works staff, dog catcher, zoning staff, and on and on and on), and that intangible pride that we all take in saying, “I’m from Golden, where we have it all and want even more.”

Data on sales tax is  more difficult to come by.  In 2011, it accounted for about $10 million in revenue.  Services and many consumer items are exempt from the tax.  For the sake of argument, assume that each household in Golden buys $10,000 worth of taxable goods annually within city limits.  That’s a lot.  The 3% city tax on those goods would be $300.

Adding the property tax and sales tax together gives us $618.25 per household for all the services, amenities and shopping opportunities you enjoy today.  Now for the fun part.  A 50% increase in the property tax and a similar increase in the sales tax would bring in an extra $7.6 million a year.  That’s $136.8 million by 2030, enough to continue to have it all with $26 million to spare.  Fifty percent?  That’s huge.  No, it isn’t.  It’s $309.13.  That’s it — less than $26 per month to continue to have it all including that intangible pride thing, plus all the additional stuff that we don’t even have yet.  Divide that by the number of people in your household.  That’s a deal.  THAT’S A GREAT DEAL!

Or you could go to brunch every couple months instead, and  plow your own street, repair your own potholes, put out your own fires, bicycle in your backyard, and explain to visitors that Golden looks shabby because  . . . .  well, because taxes are evil.  Or are they always?

Still need convincing? Answer this question. Why is my house worth $100,000 more than the same house in Arvada or Lakewood? That’s right — it’s all those amenities.  Now, tell your City Councilor to protect your investment.

(Note: The numbers here were taken from readily available sources, and should be considered approximate at best. Furthermore, because of Colorado’s Gallagher Amendment, property tax increases fall disproportionately on commercial property owners.  If one chose to mitigate the effect on commercial property owners by some mechanism to circumvent the Gallagher Amendment, it would be necessary to decide who should bear the expense of that subsidy. For instance, if a legal means were found to exempt commercial property from a tax increase and instead impose the burden entirely on residential property owners, the total monthly tax burden for each typical household would be approximately $40 (16.50 per person) more instead of $26.)

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Occupy Clear Creek

A resident of the 9th Street Historic district wrote to Golden Mayor Marjorie Sloan to express concern that the popularity of the Clear Creek corridor has resulted in 1) more trash, 2) limited parking for residents, 3) inability to use the trail because of camping setups, 4) alcohol in open containers and 5) loud and obnoxious language around children.  Her question:  How best to approach “this problem.”

Mayor Sloan wrote back that she recognized “the problem” and was looking for a solution.  “To alleviate the situation for now,” the City “has stepped up enforcement; the city manager [has prohibited] glass containers and smoking, and posted notices,” she said.  The notices proclaim, “The following are prohibited upon all City property, including parks, trails and rights of way adjacent to Clear Creek, with the exception of the Clear Creek Recreational Vehicle Park: SMOKING, POSSESSION OF GLASS CONTAINERS, DOG OFF LEASH, POSSESSION OF ALCOHOL.”  A flashing highway sign on 10th Street near City Hall reinforces this message.

The Clear Creek corridor is uniquely suited to walking (with and without dogs and children), bicycling, rollerblading, skate boarding, kayaking, fishing, tubing, sun bathing and wading, photography, painting, reading, picnicking, rv’ing and people watching.  The Golden History Museum, Clear Creek History Park, Jefferson County Library, Golden RV Park and City athletic facilities are located in the corridor and also attract visitors.  On a day to day basis, these are the “ongoing activities”  that occur more or less continuously, especially in the summer.

The corridor hosts other events as well, such as the Chamber of Commerce Farmers’ Market, the Lions’ Club Independence Day celebration, Buffalo Bill Days  and the Golden Fine Arts Festival.  These “special events,” although popular, are located in the Clear Creek corridor more by happenstance than because of any symbiotic relationship to the central recreational features of the corridor which are, obviously, Clear Creek, the creek side trail, Lions, Parfet and Vanover Parks, the athletic fields, and the museums and library.

Mayor Sloan wrote that the “misuse and overuse” of the Clear Creek corridor would be the subject of discussion by the Golden Parks and Recreation Board at their July 17 meeting, but the City didn’t wait for this discussion to initiate action to protect the creek banks and step up enforcement of the city’s decrees banning smoking, off leash dogs, drinking, and possession of glass containers.  However, one worries that the City’s immediate response does more to discourage visitors than to encourage them to enjoy the City’s signature amenity in a responsible and sustainable way.

Why am I qualified to comment?  My first trip to Clear Creek was when there were no paths, kayaks, visitors’ center or amenities.  I watched as former Parks and Recreation Director Charles Fagan launched his vision of a special community place — the addition of paths, the kayak course, the Golden Mile, the Community Center, etc.  For more than a decade I have walked, biked or floated the creek nearly every day and many nights, year round, winter, summer, spring and fall.  What follows is one observer’s take on the real problems and possible solutions.

Dogs off Leash:  Not a real problem.  Three hundred sixty-five days a year, dogs and their companions are among the most dedicated, loyal users of the Clear Creek corridor.  Yes, there are dogs off leash in the creek and chasing balls and one another on the ball fields when they aren’t in use.  These dogs delight themselves and passersby, and seldom interfere with other users of the creek.  The vast majority of walkers studiously clean up after their dogs, and out-of-towners at the campground invariably comment on how Goldenites love their well-behaved dogs.  “Strict” enforcement is not necessary to curb the occasional owner that allows his or her dog to be a nuisance.   If a dog is intimidating or interfering with someone else’s activities, a word to the owner is invariably sufficient to get the dog leashed.  Indeed, the worst dog offenses are thoughtlessly tethering dogs too close to the path and failing to keep leashed pets under control while walking.

Alcohol:  Considering the volume of people and picnickers that cover the rocks along the north bank of the creek, there is remarkably little visible evidence of alcohol abuse, although if one looks closely one can often see beer being discreetly consumed from numerous coolers.   There are more visibly intoxicated people in Lions Park on Independence Day when the City licenses the sale of beer, but the level of alcohol induced misbehavior is low even then.  Obviously, public intoxication deserves a response from law enforcement, but overall there is no call for pursuing a policy of zero tolerance and stiff fines.  More often than not,  a word to the wise would be sufficient.

Glass Containers:  Again, considering the numbers of people and rocks along the creek, one sees very little broken glass.  Apparently, most visitors are careful.  On Saturday, July 14, the only glass containers that were observed were in the venders’ stands of the Farmers’ Market, where, despite the intimidating orange notices posted everywhere, the City sensibly opted not to enforce the City Manager’s decree banning glass containers on City property.  On the other hand, broken glass poses a real danger of injury, so this issue deserves targeted attention, especially close to and in the creek.

Parking:  Except during special events, this has never been a serious problem.  That might change now that the library has hired a private security guard to ensure that the library’s surplus of parking spaces is reserved for patrons.  Also, the City has eliminated several parking spaces along the creek and recently roped off others.  On Sunday, July 15, these measures, coupled with the hot temperature, resulted in very few available parking spots for two blocks on either side of the Billy Drew bridge north of the creek.  However, there were still enough scattered spaces to avoid pushing cars into the adjoining residential neighborhoods.  There was plenty of space available in the “snow storage” lot on the south side of the creek.   For the time being, parking isn’t a problem on a day-to-day basis.

However, the parking situation is entirely different during special events.  Although parking is tight, it is usually still adequate during organized athletic activities on the ball fields.  However, on Independence Day the available lots  filled and cars overflowed into the adjoining residential neighborhood, and this reoccurs weekly during the farmers’ market.  There is nothing more annoying than finding that one cannot park in front of one’s own house, so complaints from residents are understandable.  When the farmers’ market is in session, the problem is particularly egregious, because the market not only attracts visitors with cars but itself occupies one of the largest available parking lots near the creek.  As a result, the adjoining library parking lot typically fills quickly with market visitors to the point that a private security guard was on duty  July 14 to prevent anyone who was not a a library patron from using the lot while the market was open, increasing pressure on the neighborhood.  This summer the Farmer’s market has expanded its footprint to include the street between the market and the tennis courts.  In past years, the street was used by venders to park their supply vehicles and trailers and as the boarding station for carriage rides into town from the market.  Now, the venders’ vehicles take up valuable parking spaces near the creek and well into the Ninth Street neighborhood.  Instead of using the street, the carriage rides have moved to a point in front of City Hall where additional parking spaces must be blocked to accommodate the carriages and horses.

Trash:  Sadly, where there are people, there will trash.   It is not uncommon to see civic minded people picking up other people’s trash and depositing it in bins so that the area along the trail remains relatively trash free.  It’s a different story in the trees and rocks nearer to the creek, where collections of plastic bottles and other refuse are frequently visible.  Trash is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Rude and Thoughtless Behavior:  Rudeness comes in many forms: foul language, leaving dog poop, bullying, congregating on the trail and blocking passersby, illegal parking, and more.  Again, there is remarkably little of this behavior relative to the numbers of people who use the Clear Creek corridor, but any measures to reduce rude behavior will only enhance the positive experience of the many users who share politely.

Environmental stress:  Vegetation on the creek’s banks is showing  stress from use. The City has recently erected orange snow fence and signs to limit access to some of the most damaged areas, but additional protection is obviously needed.

So those are the problems.  What are the solutions?

Of course, one solution would be to do everything possible to drive people out.  What a shame that would be for the many people who come to enjoy Golden’s signature amenity.  The number of people using the creek should be regarded as a success story not a blight.  Any long and short term solutions should be designed to ensure that the Clear Creek corridor and community events continue to attract as many families and visitors as possible and that their experience here leaves them feeling good about Golden.  As much as possible, signs and notices should be educational and directional, not heavy handed and threatening.

By all means, protect the creek from damage that has resulted from users entering, exiting and simply hanging out on the banks of the creek.  As soon as practicable, replace the unsightly temporary snow fences with more of the log fences that were installed a couple years ago to direct access to suitable entry points.  Supplement the new “Entry Prohibited” signs with signs that direct users to the preferred entry points for kayakers, tubers, pedestrians and dogs.  Coordinate with kayak clubs to discourage the practice of launching boats by sliding down the dirt banks into the water.

Back off on the “strict enforcement” policy against dogs owners and picnickers.  These measures address problems which are not really problems.  Rather, they seem almost designed to discourage visitors, and thus run contrary to years of effort to encourage people to come to Golden to enjoy the creek.  A light handed approach to enforcement would obtain commendable results without offending well intentioned visitors and undermining years of work to entice visitors to Golden.  Possession of glass containers by venders at the farmers’ market is a benign infraction that requires no official action.  So too are dogs off leash to retrieve a stick or adults washing down their sandwich with a beer.   To the extent that many of the families who have discovered Golden are Hispanic,  the City should remember that history is replete with instances where supposedly “strict enforcement” of vagrancy laws, for example, was a cover for discrimination.  That’s a reputation that Golden doesn’t want or need.

Special events that have nothing to do with the unique amenities of the Clear Creek corridor should eventually be moved to other venues.  The Golden High School parking lot, for instance, would be an ideal location for the farmers’ market and would bring desirable traffic to the neglected commercial neighborhood at that end of town.  If cooperation with the school district proved too difficult, the parking lot behind the Source Gas headquarters would likewise be suitable, and close to underused City parking garages and downtown.  For now, the City could insist that farmers’ market and Fine Arts Festival venders park their service vehicles in the snow storage lot on the south side of the creek instead of in adjoining neighborhoods.  Moving the carriage rides to the snow storage lot would also reduce traffic and parking stress on the other side of the creek, and would help to educate visitors to the existence of  that alternative parking area.  This observer noticed that the snow lot was nearly empty on July 14, even as the Ninth Street neighborhood overflowed with parked cars, venders’ trucks and trailers.  Additional unused parking is available near the Golden Hotel and at the Golden Visitors Center, but visitors won’t find those lots unless signs and event sponsors direct them.  It just makes sense to require event sponsors  to assign volunteers and post signs to direct customers to underused parking lots and away from residential neighborhoods and the recreational amenities of Clear Creek.  The City should also mend fences with the library board so that part of their lot would be accessible when not needed for special events at the library.  In the meantime, the library’s security guard could at least be asked to inform visitors where alternative parking might be found, instead of simply shooing people away and into the residential neighborhood.

In the long term, relocate facilities that don’t rely on the creek for their success.  Obvious examples are the ball fields and tennis courts.  The library, the Clear Creek History Center, and even City Hall and municipal offices occupy space that could one day be used for parking and outdoor activities.  The facilities don’t need to be near the creek to carry out their useful and necessary functions.  Plans to complete a looping trail on the south side of the creek, together with improvements there, would also have a salutary effect and should be accelerated.

Hire a park ranger and engage Golden’s active volunteer community.   A helpful ranger could favorably affect every problem discussed above, by encouraging polite behavior, educating visitors about amenities in the Clear Creek corridor and elsewhere in town, and, when a word to the wise is insufficient, calling on Golden police to enforce the law.  A person with the right attitude, people skills and knowledge of the Clear Creek corridor and the rest of the city could help immeasurably in more ways than can be enumerated here.  A ranger could also solicit coordinate volunteers who could help with directions, education, cleaning trash from the difficult to reach areas where it tends to accumulate, etc.

Here are some other viewpoints: Mayor’s Messages, Jacob Smith for Golden, Denver Post Your Hub

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