City holds back key calculations on TABOR
A little more than a year ago, Grand Junction City Attorney John Shaver told city councilors Grand Junction’s current practice of excluding certain city and Mesa County sales taxes from local Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights calculations began with revenues starting in 2006.
Some citizen watchdogs, however, don’t believe that’s true, and city officials aren’t providing official documentation that would ostensibly verify Shaver’s statement.
Multiple requests filed under the Colorado Open Records Act seeking basic revenue information for the years immediately prior to 2006 — which if provided would presumably prove the city did not exclude the taxes in question — have been met with a common refrain from Grand Junction finance officials:
“There are no documents responsive to your request.”
The yearly TABOR calculations are a unique and critical tool for defining municipal budgets in Colorado. In short, revenue amounts taken in by cities above a TABOR-set limit are required by the state Constitution to be returned to taxpayers and not spent by government.
By excluding portions of city and county sales taxes, Grand Junction dodged big refunds during years when local governments saw record growth in sales-tax revenue.
As with most complex legislation, TABOR’s exemptions are not cut and dry, and dozens of lawsuits have been filed challenging specific language within the law. The Colorado Supreme Court has already redefined or further clarified some aspects of the original constitutional amendment, passed in 1992.
Since that May 2013 special workshop with city councilors, city officials have provided detailed revenue calculations for the years 2006 through 2011. The data include yearly revenue and funds subject to limitation, the city’s share of a voter-approved county tax and how much was withheld, and also TABOR “black box” revenue — money subject to TABOR restrictions after exemptions are accounted for.
But those same numbers for the year 2005 have not been provided by the city, despite multiple requests for them.
Local citizen watchdog Dennis Simpson’s persistent questioning about the city’s TABOR practices sparked the special workshop last year, and since then Simpson has sought that specific revenue data for years dating back to 1998.
Simpson has scrutinized “revised” numbers provided by the city and cross-checked those against mill levy credit information provided by the Mesa County Assessor’s Office. His conclusion is that it’s clear the city has been excluding the two sets of sales taxes in question from 1998 on.
He called other numbers “impossible.”
Simpson says the city’s “black box” revenue numbers for a few of the years don’t match reality either.
He believes the city is stonewalling on providing original pre-2006 TABOR data because he thinks it will prove the city has been excluding the taxes well before the year Shaver contends the practice began.
“It would be so simple for them to make me look like the village idiot. If they had evidence that (Shaver) was telling the truth, they could send my credibility down the drain,” Simpson said last week.
Repeated requests by The Daily Sentinel for original pre-2006 data also are met with directions to inspect the city’s 2005 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, or CAFR.
“I’ve looked at the CAFRs year after year. There’s nothing in there that addresses specifics of the questions being asked,” Simpson said.
Simpson and others previously raised red flags over how Mesa County had been calculating its TABOR revenue as well. After alleged inconsistencies over a specific stretch during the 2000s came to light, county officials called in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to examine the books.
That investigation is presumably ongoing. CBI officials did not return a message Friday.
Mesa County also changed course last year, in terms of continuing to exclude its sales tax revenue from annual TABOR calculations.
New commissioners decided against continuing to rely on a 2007 legal opinion by attorney Dee Wisor, the basis for their exclusion of the taxes since 2007.
The city still sees the Wisor opinion as valid, however, and it remains the legal basis for the city’s continued exclusion of the taxes in question.