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Longtime Niwot business owners wary of incorporation


January 29, 2020 | View PDF

Vicki Maurer

A sign outside Niwot Market promotes Niwot's low sales tax rates.

Carrie Wise of Wise Buy Antiques is not prone to angry outbursts, but a recent push to bring a municipal government to Niwot has provoked more than one. Now she is joining with other local business owners to get the word out about the potential pitfalls of incorporation and head off a move that she said will irreparably change the unique character of the town.

"I think Niwot's really good the way it is," Wise said. "Don't mess with it if it's not broken. I can't help it if the people on the next block didn't get what they want from Boulder County, but we shouldn't change everything because of that."

Wise has found an outlet for her frustration in Pat Murphy and Bert Steele, who have cast a wary eye at an incorporation feasibility study released last month by the Niwot Incorporation Committee. While the trio has a number of misgivings about an incorporated Niwot, their top concern centers around the hefty tax increases outlined in the feasibility study. According to the incorporation committee, converting the town to a municipality and funding its initial years of operation will require an additional property tax levy of 7.5 mills on both residential and commercial property in town, boosting annual tax bills by thousands of dollars for the latter. Bert Steele of Niwot Market said that's too high for many retail outlets, including his, which often operate with a slender profit margin.

"There's pressure coming from everywhere, driving up costs, so the property tax is a concern because we want to do more for the employees and fix up the store...This is a small community, and we're paying a lot now, and it doesn't make sense to do it to ourselves."

Steele is also dismayed by a proposed increase in local sales tax rates, from 5.985 to 8.895 percent, exceeding both Longmont (8.815%) and Boulder (8.85%), and effectively wiping out what had proven to be an effective lure for out-of-town shoppers, as well as a little extra change for Niwot customers.

"There's no additional sales tax here, and I think that's really good for the customers and it gives us a little bit of a competitive edge," he said. "I appreciate that, and I would hate to see that go away."

Wise predicted ruinous consequences for Niwot's economic viability under these potential taxing scenarios.

"I'm really fearful for the commercial district, because it's just getting overtaxed for what it is, and [proponents] saying that it's going to be vibrant, well it's more than likely going to be the opposite of that, because rents will have to be raised."

She was especially vexed by what she termed a "lack of transparency" in the group's treatment of the 1% LID special district tax.

"The incorporation committee failed to tell us that the 1% sales tax that we voted on and that's dedicated to the commercial district, if we incorporate, it goes away," she said. "It should be in the Pros & Cons [section of the study], but they didn't do that. They did finally put it into the budget, but only after Tim and I pushed them."

(The projected incorporation budget does include a line item for an "Economic Vitality Fund," with a note that it should be earmarked "to support economic vitality, marketing and promotion, and infrastructure for the Niwot commercial district.")

Murphy raised another concern about business property taxes. According to her analysis of the proponents' budget, the town's commercial entities will bear a disproportionate share of the tax burden, with 50 properties contributing more than a quarter of total revenues.

"It seems like they're asking 50 commercial people to pay 25% of fixing the town's roads," the longtime proprietor of Niwot Real Estate said. "I'm a small businessperson, and I like to see small businesses succeed. If rents go up, that will get passed on to the customers."

Murphy also raised the alarm about the potential for encroaching development should the town elect to incorporate. As a veteran of the campaign to keep Niwot safe from Boulder and Longmont planners through the transfer of development rights, she is sensitive to the threat of creeping growth.

"I was involved in a lot of land use issues," she said. "What I see is that annexation or rezoning could take place. Everybody likes our small town, and, if all of the sudden, the budget is light and there's a piece of adjacent property, someone might think it might be a great way to get some income...My goal is to protect what people in the past and what people in the future like about Niwot-that it's small. Annexation can change it, and zoning can change it."

She also rejects claims by incorporation proponents that Niwot's relationship with Boulder County has deteriorated in recent years. Citing a number of local projects funded or supported by the county, such as Children's Park, Murphy said, "We're getting great service. They've helped with doing downtown, they helped us with TDRs to help keep the town small. The county's been good to us."

Finally, Steele wanted to be clear that just because some Niwot Business Association officers are cheering incorporation, it is far from a universal sentiment among the organization's membership.

"This is a huge thing to figure out, and I feel pushed," he said. "I view it as a really big decision, and I want everyone to really think it out and look at both sides of this."


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