Promises, promises. Never mind proponents’ propaganda about what a proposed local tax increase will pay for. If it’s not specifically mentioned on the ballot, it’s unenforceable.
Vail Resorts, the huge international skiing conglomerate, learned this lesson the hard way: Handshake agreements with government officials aren’t worth the paper they’re not written on.
Vail’s operation at Breckenridge is upset that a 4.5 percent tax it is now required to levy on lift tickets isn’t going to build the parking garage that city officials said it would.
The town of Breckenridge gets crowded during ski season and is short on parking. In July 2015 the town council proposed the ticket tax to pay for a new parking garage at the south end of town and for more transit services.
The 500-car parking structure on the F-Lot was “at the top of the list” of recommendations, according to a news release issued by the town.
The resort was not happy at first. “We are adamantly opposed to a lift-ticket tax,” Kristin Stewart, the resort’s communications manager, told the Summit Daily News on July 20, 2015.
Council member Wendy Wolfe, writing in the same paper a week later, said the town has “studied the feasibility of a new structure at F-Lot to death!” It is the right location for parking in the core of the town, she said, citing various advantages.
The town sent out a “Comprehensive Transit & Parking” mailer that said the F-Lot garage site “has the best access to where visitors want to be in Breckenridge— i.e. close to downtown.”
After early resistance, the ski area “eventually came to an agreement with them that the tax would raise the right amount to fund a parking facility and other transit improvements,” said John Buhler, the area’s chief operating officer, in a Denver Post op-ed last month.
The proposed lift-ticket tax was passed overwhelmingly by the town’s voters last November. But almost immediately the council decided the parking garage wasn’t a priority.
Instead it opted for a trolley, additional parking meters and more bus routes. Parking will continue to be “studied to death.”
So what was the ballot question actually put before Breckenridge voters? “Shall town of Breckenridge taxes be increased by $4 million annually commencing July 1, 2016” … by imposing an admissions excise tax of 4.5 percent on each lift ticket purchased … “for the direct and indirect costs” of operating the town’s transit system, including land acquisition, construction, maintenance, public parking, crosswalks and roundabouts.
There is no mention of a parking garage.
If Breckenridge’s lawyers publicly protested this wording before the election there is no record of it. Jim Jonas, director of corporate communications for Vail Resorts, said the company took the city at its word as to what it was going to do.
“We had a handshake agreement and all kinds of meetings, public and private, with them,” he said.
The headline over Buhler’s op-ed in the Post accused the town of “bait and switch.”
Does that mean a lawsuit is planned? No, said Jonas. Nor will the ski area refuse to collect the tax and make the city take it to court. “Our corporate folk aren’t in any mood to open this can of worms before ski season,” he said.
Instead, “We want to prosecute it in the court of public opinion.”
It may be their only shot. Vail’s attorneys are well aware that courts will rarely look behind the wording of a ballot issue when determining if a tax has been fraudulently imposed.
The national election provides a useful analogy. Donald Trump has promised over and over that he will build a wall along the Mexican border and make the Mexicans pay for it. He has also pledged to put Hillary Clinton in jail for her email antics. Acres of newsprint have been devoted to these issues.
If by some miracle he wins the election he won’t build the wall, let alone convince Mexico to pay for it. And it’s not likely he’ll convince his attorney general to prosecute Clinton. It will all be campaign rhetoric under the bridge.
Would unhappy Trump supporters sue? They can try, but they would be laughed out of court. Trump’s promises are merely politics—just like the town of Breckenridge’s pledge to build a parking garage.
Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes once a week for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.