APR’s state ballot series: Amendment U

Oct 30, 2016

Bill Fales stands in front of his home; behind is both BLM and private land on which his cows graze. Fales supports Amendment U, which will exempt some users from paying property taxes for use of public lands.
Credit Aspen Public Radio News

Coloradoans have nine statewide ballot initiatives to decide on by Election Day. This fall, Aspen Public Radio is exploring how these measures affect area residents. Today, we look at Amendment U.



Bill Fales’ ranch sits along Highway 133 just south of Carbondale, extending from the valley floor up into the Thompson Divide. On the mesa, there’s a patchwork of Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and private property, much of it without fences.


For about three weeks in late May and early June, Fales’ cows graze on both his own and some BLM lands, and each year, Fales pays a property tax on the roughly $50 permit for use of these public lands.


“So I get a tax bill for 67 cents,” Fales said.  


Not for long, if Amendment U passes. It’s a complicated question on a daunting ballot.


When a private individual or company uses public lands for profit, it creates a possessory interest, which is then subject to property tax. Amendment U would create an exemption for any interest valued at less than $6,000, like Fales’ and many other grazing permits.


The amendment would affect about 5,100 private individuals or companies, who pay a total of about $125,000 per year. So it averages out to about $24 a year each.


“It’s just so inefficient. It costs the county much more to collect a 67 cent tax bill than it generates in income,” Fales said. “It’s just a waste of everybody’s time.”


In Pitkin County, there are between 15 and 20 accounts that would be affected by Amendment U, according to Larry Fite with the assessor’s office.


“The taxes on those really are less than the expenses associated with printing, mailing, and collecting the tax,” Fite said.


Amendment U was sponsored by Republican state senator Randy Baumgardner, whose district includes Garfield County, and Democratic state senator Edward Vigil of Alamosa. Locally, Republicans endorse a yes vote, but Democrats don’t. Howard Wallach is chair of the Pitkin County Democrats, and he said it’s a matter of principle.


“It seems to us that if you collect a tax on a loaf of bread or a can of soda or something like that, then we really don’t have a principle in effect which says some taxes are too small to collect, because we do collect very small amounts,” Wallach said.


Taxes on all possessory interests — including big ones, like ski areas that use U.S. Forest Service land or sports arenas on state-owned property — bring in a total of about $7 million annually. There are no formal committees lobbying for or against the measure.