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Sloan's Lake Park. Photo by Daliah Singer

Why a Parks, Trails, and Open Space Tax Is Being Proposed in Denver

The Parks, Trails, and Open Space Tax—aka Referred Question 2A—on the Denver ballot would address a problem you may not have thought we had: maintaining and creating public green spaces.

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Cracked asphalt. Overflowing trash bins. Pool infrastructure long past its heyday. Sprinklers spraying water onto sidewalks instead of the grass. Denver’s parks need some serious upkeep. In fact, the city’s green spaces are facing a $127 million maintenance backlog.

To help reduce that number—as well as acquire new land for parks, restore waterways, and care for trees—Denver residents are being asked to support the Parks, Trails, and Open Space Tax (Referred Question 2A on the 2018 ballot).

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“Parks are an absolutely critical piece to the fiber and identity of a place, of a city, and how we see ourselves and the place that we live and work and play,” says Denver City Council president Jolon Clark (District 7), who sponsored the proposal. “That has long been entrenched in how we identify ourselves here in Denver.”

The proposal would raise the sales and use taxes in the city and county of Denver by 0.25 percent, or 25 cents per $100 purchase, resulting in about $45 million a year for the city. (“Food for home consumption” and prescription drugs will remain exempt from the sales and use tax.) The impact on the average Denver household will be about $25 to $35 per year; only about 30 percent of sales taxes gathered within the city and county of Denver are actually paid for by residents, while the other 70 percent comes from tourists and visitors.

Mayor Michael Hancock announced his support of the measure last week. “This initiative will help us…maintain a strong, vibrant park network, which is an economic generator, an economic sustainer, as well as allow us to maintain a quality of life in our neighborhoods,” he said on a phone call with 5280. “I think it’s the right time—especially in regard to [Denver’s] growth—that we create a more sustainable funding source for our parks.”

The Parks, Trails, and Open Space Tax is one of four proposals on the 2018 Denver ballot asking for a sales tax increase, and public opposition to the initiative is limited to concerns over why we need to raise sales taxes to fund projects such as these.

2A creates a dedicated revenue stream year after year, so there is always money going toward our parks and waterways, without concern they’ll be cut out of general fund dollars. Denver hasn’t been able to capitalize on other funding streams, such as the lottery dollars available through Great Outdoors Colorado, because the city doesn’t have the money to match them, says Jim Petterson, Trust for Public Land‘s (TPL) Southwest and Colorado director.

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When asked why a sales tax was the right approach for this issue, Clark points to our neighbors: In the seven-county metro area, Denver is the only county that doesn’t dedicate a portion of its sales tax to parks. Adams, Arapahoe, and Broomfield counties all have the same 0.25 percent tax that Denver is proposing; Boulder County’s is 0.6 percent; Jefferson County’s is 0.5 percent; and Douglas County is the lowest at 0.17 percent.

TPL, a land conservation nonprofit that’s supporting the proposal, releases an annual ParkScore ranking that compares the country’s 100 largest cities based on “how well each city is meeting the need for parks.” Currently, Denver is ranked 26th. Just four years ago, the Mile High City ranked seventh.

Denver is experiencing a “rapid pace of change,” Petterson says. “If we’re not investing in improving the parks we have and creating new parks, we’re going to lose the chance because we’re going to run out of space.”

Clark and Mayor Hancock both also point to the city’s growth as reasons why 2A is needed now. Says Clark: “Now that we’re growing, it’s happening very quickly, and we’re losing something very important to us…. The health benefits—both mental health and physical health—that come with access to open space and access to playgrounds and access to a jogging or walking track, those are all well proven. We are not providing those things to every resident in Denver…. With this size of commitment [the revenue from 2A], people are going to feel that in every single park in the city.”

The wording of the proposal also requires Denver Parks and Recreation to submit an annual report on how the money was spent and, within one year of the article’s adoption, craft a five-year plan for how the revenue will be used.

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VOTE: Wherever you stand on this—and any other—issue, it’s important to take the time to vote. Election Day is Tuesday, November 6. Denver County voters can find everything they need to know here. The 2018 Ballot Information Booklets (commonly known as Blue Books) are being mailed out, but if you haven’t received yours, they’re also available in English and in Spanish here.

Read more: Colorado Ballot 2018: What Every Voter Should Know

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