City Charter offers citizens a means to control their taxes

An interesting alignment of the last two weeks’ columns and a large article in The Daily Sentinel on Monday seems to have given rise to some questions about how citizens can exercise control over local taxing and spending.

In this column two weeks ago, I discussed the optimistic lawsuit filed in federal court to try and invalidate the Taxpayers Bill of Rights portion of the Colorado Constitution. In that instance, it seems taxpayers in Colorado have been getting above their place in the pecking order by continuing to require their vote prior to raising their taxes or keeping their money.

The next column was about how confused and “flummoxed” city officials were in Grand Junction about how they could possibly return constitutionally mandated funds to taxpayers, especially when they need those monies so desperately for — you know — stuff.

The sort of stuff they feel they might need was perhaps exhibited in a July 4 story titled, “In Quandary over homeless,” which detailed a recent raft trip down the Colorado where local officials were taken on a tour of the various homeless enclaves in the area. During this voyage, various options were floated concerning what might be done about the illicit naturalists along the river.

Here’s a quote from the story that seems to sum up a bit of the thinking on solutions: “Could it include large trash receptacles and portable toilets along the river quarter? Might it mean a tent city with showers, bathrooms and some sort of governing and payment structure?”

So, the solution to the transient issue seems to be building some sort of taxpayer-funded KOA campground along the river, with what sounds like its own government. And why not? This community has already been assigned its own small police force in the form of the three member H.O.T. squad (Homeless Outreach Team).

All this leads to one inevitable question: How in the world does one get the taxpayers’ checkbook away from these people?

In the case of the city of Grand Junction some have asked, concerning my reference to a ballot initiative, how that might be accomplished if taxpayers wanted to more directly control spending authority or further cap tax collections beyond TABOR requirements.

The Grand Junction City Charter has within it a mechanism for citizen initiative under Title XVI, refreshingly denominated as, “DIRECT LEGISLATION BY THE PEOPLE.” The Charter was adopted in 1909, before some folks thought that sort of thing unconstitutional.

There are two ways for citizens to get an initiative on the ballot to do something like reduce sales taxes or direct percentages of tax revenues to specific spending areas. Both techniques are similar in that they require individuals to gather a percentage of qualified city voters to sign and submit a petition. The percentage of signatures needed is based on the total number of votes cast by city residents in the last election for governor.

A qualifying petition submitted with 10 percent of that number would require the City Council to either adopt the initiative within 20 days or call a special election for its consideration within 90 days.

The other method requires 5 percent of the number of gubernatorial voters’ signatures be submitted within a more rigid time frame and compels the council to adopt the initiative or place it on the next regular municipal election ballot, “occurring within 60 days thereafter. If filed before 60 days, or within 40 days of such election, said petition shall be invalid,” the charter says.

Without having precise figures available for the number of city residents voting in the last gubernatorial election, we can extrapolate a wildly elastic figure by looking at the total number cast in the county, which was 55,698. Using a figure for the city of about 43 percent of voters (a figure I arrived at by placing the election results on the floor and going over them in a series of short hops), we determine the ridiculously inaccurate number of about 24,000 city votes cast for governor in 2010. That would mean 10 percent is 2,400 and 5 percent is 1,200, which seem somewhat safe estimates for petition requirements.

The other way would be for the City Council to vote to submit a ballot initiative on tax limitation or revenue direction to the people. You could always wait for that.

Rick Wagner offers more thoughts on politics at his blog, The War on Wrong.


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