County reverses stance on TABOR
Mesa County commissioners voted unanimously Monday to immediately resume inclusion of county sales tax dollars in a tally subject to provisions of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
TABOR limits the amount of tax revenue a government body in Colorado can collect before tax dollars are refunded to taxpayers. In 2007, the county began excluding sales tax from the formula used to calculate whether taxpayers were due a refund under TABOR. It is the only county in Colorado that has held onto sales tax revenue that may have been subject to a refund without a public vote.
The decision to exclude sales tax from TABOR calculations was based on solicited advice from Denver attorney Dee Wisor, who suggested sales tax may be free from TABOR limitations because locals voted to approve a county sales tax in 1981, 11 years before TABOR became law.
Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said Monday he and then-commissioners Craig Meis and Janet Rowland did not take a formal vote but agreed unanimously to take Wisor’s advice and advise staff to start excluding sales tax from TABOR calculations.
Earlier this month, Rowland told The Daily Sentinel she did not participate in the decision and would not approve of the sales tax exclusion then or now. Meis said he does not recall if there was ever a specific meeting about the idea.
On Monday, Acquafresca said he’s not convinced the sales tax exemption was right or wrong and he may ask legislators to ask the Colorado Supreme Court to review the question.
He also reiterated his stance that all three commissioners were involved in approving the exemption.
“The really easy thing for me to do would be to say I didn’t remember (any meetings) either,” he said. “That would be dishonest. Had I ever went that way, people would question my integrity.”
The integrity of the county’s actions was called into question during public testimony, when eight citizens questioned how the 2007 decision was made and how its impacts would be addressed.
The formula’s revenue cap is based on population growth and inflation and makes a refund less likely in a weak economy, but Mesa County’s economy was still thriving the year the decision was made.
Mesa County Finance Director Marcia Arnhold said the county has not exceeded the cap for a TABOR refund this year or in the past four years, which she said is the time limit for retroactive refunds under the TABOR statute of limitations.
Former Commissioner John Crouch said he understands the time limit but called not addressing possible lost refunds “unscrupulous.”
“Are you just going to dispense with that refund and say, ‘Well, we’re sorry’?” Crouch asked commissioners.
Commissioner Rose Pugliese said she may never know what happened in 2007, and she will struggle with how to make the 6-year-old decision right when the statute of limitations allows commissioners to ignore those first two years without sales tax built into TABOR calculations.
“If I were there in 2007, it really wouldn’t be enough (evidence) to convince me,” Pugliese said, referring to Wisor’s opinion. “From today forward, we definitely need to include sales tax.”
Commissioner John Justman said the legality of the sales tax decision “is not black and white,” but his preference is to add sales tax into TABOR calculations.
Acquafresca did not say whether he supports the county’s original actions but said he would side with Pugliese and Justman, given community response to the issue and the county’s need to move forward with the budget year.
Wednesday morning, Grand Junction City Council members will discuss their exclusion of a three-quarter cent sales tax approved in 1989 from TABOR calculations. City voters approved using tax revenue over TABOR limits for Riverside Parkway construction debt payments in 2007.
City officials declined last week to say when they began excluding sales tax from TABOR calculations, pending Wednesday’s meeting at 8:30 a.m. in the City Hall auditorium.