County: District 51 should try to re-Bruce

Now that litigation has failed to stop Gov. Bill Ritter’s mill-levy freeze, the Mesa County Commission is considering ways to re-enact the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights revenue limitations for School District 51.

TABOR, an amendment to the state constitution, places limits on governments’ ability to spend and receive revenues. Those caps fluctuate from year to year based on the consumer price index and population. Voters removed TABOR caps (known as de-Brucing, a reference to TABOR author Douglas Bruce) for the Mesa County School District 51 in 1999.

There is a novelty factor here.

“No community, to my knowledge, has ever re-Bruced,” said Lyle Dechant, Mesa County attorney.

The mill-levy freeze, signed into law in May 2007, prevents local school district property tax rates from falling when they otherwise would.

Last year the County Commission joined a lawsuit attempting to stop the mill-levy freeze.

The lawsuit was dismissed earlier this month by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Voters would have to approve reinstating TABOR limits on the school district.

Either way, re-Bruced or de-Bruced, Mesa County School District 51 will receive the same amount of money, because it is a mix of local and state funds. By re-Brucing, local property owners would pay less of that mix.

“My goal is to see if we can re-Bruce,” said Janet Rowland, county commissioner. “When we as a board certify the mill levy, when it comes to the mill levy that is frozen, I believe I am in violation of the (state) constitution.”

But some on School District 51’s school board say the County Commission is butting in
where it should not.

“I think the commissioners need to stay out of it,” said Cindy Enos-Martinez, school board member-District B. “I don’t want to see (re-Brucing) happen.”

Neither does the president of the school board, Leslie Kiesler.

The state is going through a budget crisis, and now is not the time to adjust any school funding formulas, she said. Additionally, the district is able to apply for and accept grants and other funding under Senate Bill 199, which bulked up funding for School District 51, taking it from one of the worst in the state to being funded at 95 percent of the state average.

“The citizens of the county are the ones who voted for that — de-Brucing is their wish — and the Supreme Court is the one who saw it was legal,” Kiesler said. “The county commissioners are supposed to be running our county and the school district is a separate entity from the county.”

Rowland said she is fighting for the school district and county property owners.

“The re-Brucing that we are suggesting would allow for them to still keep those grants and those donations, but more clearly clarify to the governor and the legislature that the intention was never, ever to raise their property taxes,” Rowland said.

The county commission broached the subject last week during a study session with Dechant. The commission eventually directed him to explore how to place the re-Brucing measure on the ballot. Theoretically, Dechant said, the state constitution’s Article 10 could be read in a way that implies a method to reinstate TABOR limitations.

Commissioner Steve Acquafresca, who did speak out against the county pursuing litigation to stop the mill-levy freeze, said he favors the voters taking a stab at the issue.

“I’m never opposed to putting questions out to the voters. I think voters appreciate having the opportunity to give their ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on policy issues,” Acquafresca said.

With the legal options exhausted there is much talk about what’s next, but few options other than the Legislature or a vote of the people.

“I think the public should have a right to vote on this,” said Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction. “And it may well turn out to be a vote on this (school) district by (school) district.”

He added that, although it was not his idea, it certainly is an avenue worth exploring.

As for the Legislature acting, Penry said that would not happen for years, until the majority changed.

But the tide is already turning and the Legislature may act to thaw the mill-levy freeze sooner, rather than later, Acquafresca said.

“The current Democratic majority in both houses is acting against the best interest of enough Coloradans so the shift in the majority could happen sooner than we think,” Acquafresca said.


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