Let’s make policy, not be victims to it
Back in June, we described the county’s response to a budget crisis affecting public safety funding as “government malpractice.”
The idea there was not to dismiss the need for a sales tax increase to hire more deputies and prosecutors, but to highlight an absurdity unfolding before our eyes.
The county had just rejected an opportunity to act as a pass-through agency between the state and Mind Springs Hospital because a $5 million grant would have counted against the county’s revenue cap, triggering refunds to county property owners under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
Shortly thereafter, commissioners authorized a ballot question asking voters to pony up $7 million via sales tax to better fund law enforcement agencies — perfectly illustrating what happens when counties don’t try to mitigate the downward ratcheting effect of TABOR’s mill-levy limitation.
TABOR, the 1992 state constitutional amendment, limits the yearly increase in tax revenue to a predetermined percentage, based on various economic growth metrics. If revenue exceeds the limit, the surplus must be refunded to taxpayers unless voters decree otherwise.
As constrictive as TABOR is, it provides its own work-around, known as de-Brucing. The vast majority of local governments in the state have received voter approval for overrides of revenue limits or exemptions for pass-through grants. But our county commissioners act as if TABOR is carved in stone and that we must simply live with rejecting state grants or pondering sales tax hikes.
We implored commissioners to calculate what various de-Brucing scenarios would net taxpayers. But the 2018 budget proposal is business as usual.
We’ve been trapped in this TABOR bubble for so long, we’ve lost sight of how low our tax burden is. In 1986, a home in Mesa County valued at $50,000 generated $954 in property taxes. In 2016, a home valued at $200,000 paid $977. Values have quadrupled, but taxes have actually gone down when inflation is factored in. That 1986 tax bill would be $2,119 in today’s dollars.
The combination of TABOR and the Gallagher Amendment have capped residential property taxes, decimating budgets for school districts and counties across the state. Shouldn’t commissioners consider asking voters if the county can keep more of the revenue it’s eligible to receive before it turns to new sources, like sales tax increases?
That horse has left the barn and we must consider the public safety tax on its own merit. We support Issue 1A — the tax hike for public safety. If it fails, crime will continue to be a problem and the county’s budget woes will become more desperate.
Regardless of the outcome of 1A, we have a choice going forward. We can be victims of circumstance or we can create sound policy using the overrides TABOR provides to stop ratcheting ourselves into oblivion.