Let’s not be penny wise and pound foolish regarding criminal justice
“Death, taxes and childbirth! There’s never a convenient time for any of them.”
— Margaret Mitchell
It’s one of those inconvenient truths that there’s never a good time to raise taxes.
When the economy is booming, folks want to keep new-found money in their own pockets. Others worry about higher taxes killing the goose busy laying those golden eggs. When the economy goes south, hard times cause worry about our own personal finances and make us unlikely to approve any increases.
When we’re somewhere in the middle, as we are now in Mesa County, all of the above come into play. Those benefiting from increasing retail sales and declining unemployment rates as well as those lagging behind in an improving overall economy all have their own reasonable worries about higher taxes.
But there are also concerns that can only be addressed with additional revenues, concerns present in good economic times and bad. Increasing criminal activity within a growing population combined with a county budget not yet recovered from the economic downturn that began a decade ago stresses our criminal justice system.
According to Sheriff Matt Lewis and District Attorney Dan Rubinstein, that means dealing with crime after it happens rather than proactive policing that might reduce criminal activity.
As Rubinstein put it recently, “We’re very good at showing up afterward and documenting what happened. Not so good at prevention.”
Lewis is down 28 deputies since 2009 while policing a growing population in urbanized areas of Mesa County that lie outside any municipal boundaries and far-flung rural areas. He has fewer deputies per 1,000 citizens than similarly-sized Pueblo, Weld and Larimer counties, but Mesa County deputies deal with higher rates of violent crimes and property crimes.
Rubinstein and his staff prosecute those crimes. His workload includes 20 murder cases, up from 6 in 2006. In Larimer County, the district attorney had a staff of 79 in 2015. The Weld County DA’s office had 69. Rubinstein had 46. He added five support staff in 2017 but no new attorneys.
The solution, according the Lewis, Rubinstein and the Mesa County commissioners, is a ballot proposal to increase the county’s sales tax from 2 percent to 2.37 percent with 84 percent of the $7.2 million in new money going to the DA and sheriff’s offices. The remaining 16 percent is earmarked for other local public safety agencies. About one-third of sales taxes are paid by out-of-county shoppers visiting Mesa County.
That would allow Rubinstein to increase his staff to 60 FTEs, still below other comparable urban counties. It’d allow Lewis to restore the 31 patrol and detention deputies cut since 2008, bringing his staff up to 1.5 deputies per 1,000 population. That’d be about the same as Weld County but half the ratio in Larimer County and still lower than the ratios in Pueblo County and neighboring Garfield, Delta, Montrose and Eagle counties.
There are other possible answers to our criminal justice needs. If a single prosecuting agency can handle cases for all of Mesa County, maybe we ought to consider consolidation of the policing agencies that catch those criminals. If an over-stressed sheriff’s department spends most of its time in the urbanized core of Mesa County, perhaps those unincorporated urban areas should be annexed by municipalities.
Consideration of a TABOR override for Mesa County is long overdue. County commissioners now advocating for the sales tax increase that would be exempt from the Taxpayer Bill of Rights are remiss in not also asking voters to de-Bruce other property and sales tax proceeds. They should seek permission to keep all growing revenues rather than be forced, perhaps as early as next year, to offer refunds that go mostly to large corporate property owners.
Given the county’s grim budget situation, failure to seek that permission, already granted by voters to hundreds of local governments in Colorado, is indeed, as a June 20 Daily Sentinel editorial termed it, “government malpractice.”
But those are all long-term discussions. Our law enforcement and prosecutorial needs are immediate and we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Mesa County voters should approve the proposed sales tax increase dedicated to public safety.
“Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes