Aurora voters to decide pit bulls, pot and other city taxes in upcoming election

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AURORA | Voters will decide in November whether to allow banished pit bulls back into the city, in addition to measures that ask for a tax extension to fund transportation projects, a tax increase for public safety operations, and special taxes for retail marijuana. The ballot questions were approved by the Aurora city council at its regular meeting July 14.

The majority of council members approved all of the four ballot measures at a meeting Monday, with a tie vote from the mayor in two of the questions. Council members Bob LeGare and Barb Cleland were absent. 

Aurora officials agreed July 14 to ask voters to repeal the city's decade-old ban on pit bulls (File photo by AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Aurora officials agreed July 14 to ask voters to repeal the city’s decade-old ban on pit bulls (File photo by AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

The council approved a transportation referendum that will ask voters for a $4.9 million tax extension for the next 15 years to fund nearly $500 million in transportation and infrastructure projects that have been needed since 2012. Council voted 7-1 to include the question on the November ballot with Councilwoman Marsha Berzins voting no.  

Extending that tax, which is 1.685 mils, means that voters who own a $200,000 home would continue to pay $27 a year in property taxes. The measure also calls for the transportation projects to be determined by public meetings and citizen surveys. This time the money would also be set aside in a restricted fund for projects that would annually change. 

“We’re falling behind on maintaining our streets,” said Councilman Bob Broom. “We try to do the best we can with what we’ve got, but it’s really important we allocate more money to the highway system.” 

Council also agreed to move forward with a ballot measure that asks voters to say yes to a tax increase of $5.9 million per year to address what city staff and council see as growing public safety needs. Council voted 7-1 to move forward with the question. Berzins voted against it. 

She said that according to a city survey, residents of Ward III which she serves would prefer to pay for public safety with a sales tax. Aurora Finance Director Jason Batchelor said to match the tax increase the city would need to increase its sales tax from 3.75 percent to 3.89 percent.

“This would put us as one of the highest sales tax communities in metro Denver. That’s going to hurt retail sales. I don’t think I would support using sales tax to pay this,” said Broom. 

Councilwoman Renie Peterson said the city was falling behind in building fire stations, hiring firefighters and getting the necessary equipment. “Now 52 percent of our budget is taken up by public safety,” she said. “In the past, what we did in shortfall times was close libraries, swimming pools, take away recreation programs, things that give us quality of life.” 

According to city documents, the public safety measure entails a property tax increase of 2 mills for Aurora residents to meet the operating needs of Aurora’s police, fire, and public safety communications departments, as well as its municipal court and detention center. That tax increase would mean voters who own a $200,000 home would pay $32 a year in property taxes.  

Council gave unanimous approval to move forward with asking voters whether they want a 5 percent excise tax on retail marijuana cultivation in Aurora, and an additional sales and use tax of 2 percent on top of the city’s standard tax rate of 3.75 percent for retail stores.  

Council also narrowly approved an amendment to the measure proposed by Peterson that would allow the city to increase that same sales and use tax up to 10 percent without voter approval. The tax would be the same as what Denver voters passed last year. The amendment passed 5-4 with council members Pierce, Broom, Roth, and Markert voting no. The mayor voted for the amendment to break the tie. 

“My concern would be we lose the entire ballot initiative because of the unknown in the eyes of public of what that (tax) is going to end up being,” Roth said. He added that Aurora is unique in asking for an excise tax, something Denver doesn’t have, in order to make money from cultivation sales. 

Peterson countered that the majority of her constituents do not want to see retail marijuana in her largely industrial ward, and that the flexibility to tax it would help the city ride out the unknowns of the industry.

The most controversial measure that council agreed to move to the ballot will ask voters whether they want to allow pit bulls back into Aurora. The city ordinance, which has been in place since 2005, bans residents from owning pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers that are not service dogs. The council approved the measure 5-4 with Broom, Mounier, Markert, and Roth voting no. The mayor moved the measure forward with a tie-breaking vote. 

Roth and Broom cited a recent incident where a pit bull mauled a toddler in Commerce City and sent him to Children’s Hospital as a compelling reason not to allow pit bulls back in Aurora in November.

 Council has until August 25 to formally adopt measures to put on the November ballot.