Think Priorities, Think Balance, Think Economic Vitality
By Boulder Chamber President & CEO John Tayer
The Boulder Chamber hosted a Policy Roundtable the other day regarding the transportation needs for our community, of which there are many, and potential funding options for meeting those needs. It got me thinking . . . Does anyone ever think about funding priorities? Does anyone ever think about the impact of different funding options on our local businesses and economy? Does anyone ever think about alternatives to new taxes and fees?
First, some context. Respected economists predict that Colorado will enter an economic downturn in the near term. At the same time, we hear murmurs of another dedicated open space sales tax. Ironically, it was just a couple of years ago that we heard there was sufficient funding to meet long-term open space needs, at least relative to other investment priorities, like transportation. As city of Boulder staff reports, we barely have enough transportation resources to fix all our potholes, let alone to make infrastructure investments that will improve workforce commutes.
During the last economic recession, a blue ribbon panel considered how best to address public funding needs in an era of tighter budgets. Their advice was to maintain flexibility in our revenue resources to provide critical city services, fund priority projects, maintain quality of life and support economic vitality. The Boulder Chamber loves open space and gladly supported taxes to finance this system. Given the blue ribbon panel’s wise counsel, as well as our enormous transportation funding gaps, though, we ask our policy leaders and citizens if they think this is the right time for further dedication of our already stretched sales tax dollars.
Of course, as I mentioned in a letter to the city council, we all understand the temptation to tax the “other guy” when seeking resources to meet our needs. Too often that other guy is the business community. We know our already high property and sales taxes put enormous pressure on small businesses, and they often are hardest hit during market fluctuations. At the other end of the spectrum, we hear that some of our larger businesses — which provide critical stability to our local economy and tax base — are making the decision to expand or relocate outside of Boulder based on our community’s high tax burden. We can expect that sentiment to be even more resonant during an economic downturn.
Transportation infrastructure investment and mobility support programs are essential to improving workforce commutes. They also are critical assets in addressing our community’s environmental, economic, social equity and quality of life goals. That’s a balance of interests that demands a balanced solution without solely pinning the cost burden on the “other guy.” Let’s think about this balance by working to advance sustainable funding mechanisms for transportation infrastructure and services that the business community can champion along with our residents.
Finally, it seems there’s always talk of new taxes in this town to cover everything from basic needs, like public safety, human services and transportation, to tackling challenges that Boulder is unique in addressing at the local level. I reference, as examples, climate protection, arts and culture facilities, and childhood obesity. The Boulder Chamber has been proud to stand in support of most, not all, such public investments through additional taxation. However, that cannot be the only approach we take. Repeatedly going back to the tax well burdens our residents with a higher cost of living and undermines business success.
There’s another approach that receives scant attention these days: economic vitality. Boulder is increasingly surrounded by competition for retail sales expenditures. That does not bode well for the condition of our tax base in the face of an economic recession. We need to think now, with attention to the conclusions from the Citywide Retail Study and through a long overdue update to our Economic Sustainability Strategy, about how we can support the very strength and diversity of the small and large businesses that carry an enormous load of funding for our critical services and amenities.
In conclusion, let’s work together to find a way to meet our most pressing needs through budget prioritization, an equitable balance of optional funding sources, and due consideration of the economic engine that supplies a significant portion of our tax revenue. It’s a lot to think about, but it’s essential if we want to sustain our quality of life and economic vitality, through good times and any potential future head winds.