Tales of tax and finance in Happy Valley
Last week, returning from a landfill run, I turned off of 29 Road onto the Riverside Parkway. As I hit newly-refurbished pavement, a hard-to-miss sign said the recently completed work was courtesy of 2B. That measure passed by city residents last April shifted some de-Bruced city funds originally earmarked for early repayment of parkway bonds over to street maintenance projects now underway in virtually every corner of Grand Junction.
Driving down the parkway and up Seventh Street to north Grand Junction, I thought about our history of tax and finance issues here in Happy Valley, successes and failures I’ve been involved with in the past, and the issues headed for the ballot in a few months.
There’s no denying the need for additional sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors. By any comparison, the Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office are short-staffed. Commissioners have struggled with that since my time in office 25 years ago.
Whether we live in the unincorporated area of Mesa County or within municipal boundaries, we all know criminals don’t pay attention to artificial borders. The $7.1 million being sought would include some funds shared with other local jurisdictions. We’ll all get our money’s worth if it passes.
As I’ve followed the work that’s gone into District 51’s $125 million bond and mill levy proposals, several things stood out in my conversations with parents and other community members.
One part of the plan would increase the number of instructional days. One mom pointed out that her kids are disadvantaged when competing with students from other districts for college admissions and scholarships. The same is true when competing in the job market. Five more days of annual instruction amounts to a difference-making nearly half-year of learning throughout the K-12 years. We need those days back. The district’s proposal would do that.
There’s also been grumpiness about seeking money for backlogged maintenance. Those folks must not recall the $30 million in necessary cuts to the district’s budget in just two years when the economy went south. With the decision to keep those cuts as far away from classroom instruction as possible, administrative positions were slashed and much building maintenance deferred. We need to catch up and also need to replace a decaying and unsafe Orchard Mesa Middle School.
There’s a potentially problematic difference between the way the school district and county proposals were developed. There have been several years of community discussions about school issues, all very public, and at least a year’s worth of effort meeting with teachers and other stakeholders on a school by school basis to flesh out specific projects that new money would fund.
As far as we know, there’s been no consideration of simply de-Brucing existing county revenues, as the city, school district and hundreds of their counterparts across Colorado have already done. Without de-Brucing, the lion’s share of property tax refunds now benefits large out-of-state corporations, not locals. The county proposal was also developed in secret by one commissioner specifically to avoid the public scrutiny the Sunshine Law would compel if more than one commissioner was involved.
That made one passage jump off the page as I recently looked through some of my older writing and speeches. Here’s what I said to city and town officials a decade or so ago in talk to the Colorado Municipal League, informed by well-deserved scars earned via my own mistakes while in public office.
“In case you haven’t noticed, the days of the DAD model of decision making (Decide-Announce-Defend) appear to be over. Especially when there’s any controversy, we can’t assume that anything is too technical or requires so much ‘inside’ knowledge” that we’re safe just pushing it through. If we’re to rebuild trust in government and its processes, we need to aggressively seek ‘permission to act’ in those instances.”
We should all support school and public safety issues on the ballot in November. I fear the smaller of the two, the county’s initiative, is the one more likely in trouble. It’s the DAD model personified, pushed through in secret, with Matt Lewis and Dan Rubinstein now sent out to defend before sometimes skeptical voters a proposal that divides even the sponsoring Board of Commissioners.
I hope that’s not a fool’s errand.