Ex-official rips board over TABOR
Simmering citizen tensions about Mesa County’s approach to the state Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights boiled to the surface before county commissioners Monday when a former commissioner confronted the current board about its financial practices.
Former commissioner John Crouch — who served on the board beginning in 1993, right as TABOR was being implemented as Colorado law — took direct aim at the previous board, which made a number of key changes to the way the county calculates local revenues during its term.
Specifically, the previous board — current Commissioner Steve Acquafresca, and prior commissioners Janet Rowland and Craig Meis — changed course in 2007 and began exempting local sales tax revenues from their TABOR calculations.
TABOR essentially says taxes cannot be raised, and governments can’t spend tax revenue that outpaces growth, without going to the voters for approval.
“(The previous board) sidelined the voters of Mesa County, and in doing so, I think, jeopardized our future — and certainly in an unscrupulous manner circumvented TABOR,” Crouch said.
“What a crock. That is revenue. Nowhere in the body of TABOR … does it say that a portion of Mesa County’s sales tax is exempt from TABOR,” Crouch said. “Otherwise every sales tax voted on in every county in the state of Colorado would be exempt.”
Two other TABOR-related county strategies were in Crouch’s crosshairs Monday: the establishment (and retroactive funding) of the county’s Building Services division into a TABOR-exempt “enterprise” in 2006, and the county’s use of issuing Certificates of Participation as financial instruments to raise money.
“(All three) circumvent the spirit and the letter of the law, and they fleece Mesa County taxpayers,” Crouch charged. “They make me ashamed of what’s going on.”
“We deserve governing bodies with more integrity,” Crouch said.
Acquafresca addressed Crouch’s accusations head on, first defending the legal opinion that the county solicited from Denver attorney Dee Wisor regarding the decision to begin exempting sales tax revenue from local TABOR calculations. That opinion centers on the fact that Mesa County voters approved their sales tax in 1981, well before TABOR.
Acquafresca also correctly pointed out that Colorado courts have ruled Certificates of Participation are viable without going to voters for approval. He further defended the 2006 Building Inspection fund as an enterprise that fits within TABOR’s exceptions “to the best of my knowledge.”
In an email Monday, former Commissioner Rowland said she first learned of the sales tax revenue exclusion by reading a previous article in The Daily Sentinel.
“I never participated in a meeting where this was discussed. I was never asked to support such a scheme and I never gave my approval to implement it,” she wrote.
“If I were to have been asked to make such a decision I would not have done so without an extensive review and requesting a second, or perhaps third, legal opinion.” She said former Commissioner Meis also was unaware of the change.
In his presentation to commissioners Monday, Crouch urged the two new members of the board — Rose Pugliese and John Justman — to take the lead in correcting the “arrogance” of the prior board.
“Two votes, and you can remake Mesa County government’s foundation based on reasonableness, truthfulness, and we can get away from this sleazy moving-around-the-corner stuff,” Crouch said.
“If you want money, there is a vehicle within TABOR to get it,” he said, later adding: “Ask for it. You don’t have to go through the back door.”
Former county Finance Director Bill Voss also spoke Monday, and similarly urged action. “This current board has inherited a TABOR mess,” he said.
Commissioner Acquafresca, current board chairman, did not close the door Monday on a reassessment of the county’s policies.
“We will certainly continue to analyze any and all TABOR questions. I think some interesting questions have been raised in the past several weeks,” he said. “We want to (implement TABOR) the right way. And we want to do it not just the legal way, but we want to do it the way that is correct.”