When Jolon Clark proposed a new sales tax to improve and expand parks in the Mile High City, he was a Denver City Council member. Now he's the council's president, and he's thrilled that his colleagues have voted to place the measure on the November ballot, as he explains in an interview below.
The plan calls for a tax of .25 percent, or about two and a half cents on a $10 purchase, with the proceeds — an estimated $41.5 million per annum — dedicated to Denver's parks. The money would be used to acquire additional parkland and open space, fund capital improvements to existing parks, pay for waterway restoration, reclamation and forestry in mountain parks and more.
During a previous Westword interview, Clark offered a variety of arguments for why this investment wouldn't overburden taxpayers. "We're the only metro county that doesn't have a dedicated sales tax for parks," he noted. "Douglas County has a .17 percent tax, and the others have at least a .25 percent sales tax. Ours is zero."
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Moreover, he maintained that even with the .25 percent increase, Denver's sales taxes would still be below average — 7.9 percent combining city and state taxes, in comparison with 8.02 percent for what he says are "our nearest 25 city and county jurisdictions." And because so much money is spent in Denver by people living in outlying suburbs or out-of-state tourists, the actual amount of revenue attributed to city residents would be just 24 percent of the total.
As for why such an investment is necessary, Clark lays out his case in the following Q&A, conducted via email.
Westword: How gratified are you that other members of the city council feel voters should have a chance to weigh in about this proposal?
Jolon Clark: Denver residents value and love their parks, and council understands the need that our city is facing with our parks. I was thrilled that this council was ready to refer this to the ballot for voters to decide.
What will you do to campaign for this measure?
A campaign committee will form soon. In my official capacity, and on city time, I have done all that I can do, which is put the choice to the voters. I will be spending my personal time helping the campaign team any way that I can.
Will the city council as a whole also be stumping on behalf of the initiative, and if so, what form will that take?
City Council as a body, cannot stump. We can refer, but not campaign. It will be up to each councilmember whether they choose to be involved in the campaign on their personal time.
How would you summarize the reasons that the proposal is important?
We have a huge backlog of maintenance and upgrade needs in our parks. From playgrounds to trails to trees, our parks are falling apart. We have parkland that hasn’t been developed and is not usable for many communities, and we have parts of the city where we need to buy land because residents do not have any park that is within a safe ten-minute walk. We have a goal to make our rivers and streams fishable and swimmable, and we have historic assets in our mountain parks that are falling apart because we can’t afford to fix them. This proposal allows us to solve these problems and sets us on the path to truly be the city in a park that Denver’s early leaders envisioned.
If the proposal isn't passed, what are some of the potential negative repercussions that you see?
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The huge annual shortage for capital maintenance will continue to get bigger, the backlog on deferred maintenance will get longer, and we will have some really tough choices to make about our existing parks and our ability to keep them safe, clean and usable.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about the proposal?
Denver citizens have always loved and cared for their parks. I am so excited that they will finally have the choice at the ballot box to make the investments we need to truly be the example that all cities strive for when it comes to providing access to high-quality parks to every citizen.