County commission weighs TABOR options

One way or another, the Mesa County Board of County Commissioners is headed toward making a decision regarding their continued exclusion of local sales taxes from Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights revenue limit calculations.

The county decided in 2007 to begin excluding their sales tax revenue, based on a legal opinion that allows it because the county’s sales tax was voter-approved in 1981, well before TABOR was passed.

By excluding sales taxes during record years of revenue collections, the county presumably skirted having to refund millions of dollars to Mesa County taxpayers.

After months of continued pressure about the practice from a select group of citizens that includes former finance department employees, the county on Monday afternoon held an open workshop that revealed commissioners are weighing a number of options regarding the issue.

The first option presented by county Finance Director Marcia Arnhold—who was leading the department in 2007 when the change was made—was for commissioners to continue the practice.

As staff pointed out, that could open the county up to a lawsuit and, regardless of outcome, would likely cost the county in legal fees.

But for Commissioner Steve Acquafresca—who was part of the original decision in 2007 and now finds himself potentially reconsidering it—having a legal finding to decide the matter once and for all is his preference.

“I want to do what’s right. And to me, doing what’s right means doing what’s legally right,” he said Monday. “Like so many other TABOR questions, either the legislature decided what the resolution is, or the (state) Supreme Court decided it.”

“Many questions surrounding TABOR went directly to the Supreme Court. The Legislature has that ability to pose those questions,” he added. “This probably should have been one of those questions that they posed.”

But without direct interest from the Legislature or the governor, the only way the issue could reach the Supreme Court would be if a lawsuit was filed against the county, something both Acquafresca and newer County Commissioner Rose Pugliese said they wanted to avoid.

“I think I’m less concerned about getting sued, and more concerned about doing what’s right for the people. I hope that we don’t get sued, regardless, but I think that we really need to look at what’s the spirit of TABOR,” Pugliese said.

That could include pursuing a second option put forth by finance staff: to again include sales tax revenue in their calculations, as they had for years before changing course in 2007.

Commissioners could direct staff to include sales tax in their TABOR calculations beginning with their 2012 numbers, or go back four years and recalculate as the amendment allows.

Because the region has been hit hard by an economic recession, the county likely would not have to refund any money to taxpayers under either scenario, Arnhold said.

No matter what commissioners decide to do, if anything, they have stated that they want their decision to be made during a public hearing, after public discussion.

They planned Monday to tentatively include an agenda item for their next administration hearing, scheduled for 9:05 a.m Monday, May 20, in the public hearing room at 544 Rood Ave.

In 2007, the decision to begin excluding sales tax from TABOR calculations happened after a budget workshop in which all three commissioners—Acquafresca, Janet Rowland and Craig Meis—agreed to the change, according to Acquafresca and then-County Administrator Jon Peacock.

Disputing the account, Rowland told The Daily Sentinel that meeting never happened, and Meis said he could not recall them making the specific exclusion decision.


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