Time for county voters to reconsider 33-year-old sales-tax structure
By Dennis Simpson
In the last year, I have observed the Mesa County budget process and feel that we need to make a fundamental change regarding the allocation of the sales tax collected by the county.
Over the last several years, I have spent a great deal of time observing and commenting on local government issues, particularly those that impact the expenditure of taxpayer funds. I have a financial background and feel that, too often, decisions are driven by a “this is the way we have always done it” mentality rather than by careful logic that considers all of the facts.
Half of the 2 percent Mesa County sales tax is earmarked for expenditure only on capital projects. This allocation was included in a resolution that was referred to in a 1981 ballot question that established the sales tax. The 2014 budget reserves $18 million from sales tax revenue for capital projects.
As the 2014 budget was developed, I watched elected officials, including the sheriff, the district attorney and the county clerk, explain that the recent recession and resultant budget reductions had caused significant turnover in the rank and file. Sheriff’s deputies are paid significantly less than Grand Junction police officers and the DA’s office has lost key experienced prosecutors.
In the same budget, the county commissioners approved millions of dollars for projects like the Colorado Riverfront Trail, a BMX track at the fairgrounds, upgrades in computer equipment and many other expenditures that were not crucial to basic services we expect from county government. Never in the process were the needs for providing day-to-day services to county residents compared to the “wouldn’t it be nice” capital projects.
Since a ballot issue created the segregation of the revenue, no change can be implemented without voter approval. The commissioners would have to decide to put the issue on the ballot. Citizens’ petition drives for anything other than recall are not allowed at the county level.
Please don’t misinterpret my message. I am not suggesting that all capital projects should receive a lower priority. For example, many expenditures on needed road and bridge infrastructure should continue to be a priority. But how can anyone justify spending millions on projects like a BMX track in a shaky economy when further reduction in basic services are looming?
Opposition to my suggested change revolves primarily around the premise that, absent the restriction of the revenue, our elected officials will quickly fall victim to demands of special interest groups, and before long, there will be no money to build roads, etc.
This kind of thinking is an indictment of our whole system. It assumes that we will elect weak, foolish people who will be easily swayed by the loudest voices. I prefer to assume that, by and large, we will elect knowledgeable people. By providing the commissioners with the flexibility to allocate scarce resources, the most efficient operation will result.
I have checked with other counties of similar size (Pueblo, El Paso, Arapahoe) and found none that have this odd restriction on their tax revenue. Somehow these counties have succeeded in meeting their capital needs and maintained a tax structure that is no higher than what we pay.
I am under no illusion that the current commissioners might agree to put this issue on the 2014 ballot. Changing something that has been in place for 33 years does not usually happen quickly. Many powerful people from the past will fight this change tooth and nail.
My hope in writing this column is that citizens will begin to form an opinion based on real facts, without the “we have always done it this way” mentality. If our economy does not improve quickly, it will be even more difficult to provide basic services and more talk of cutting operational budgets or raising taxes may happen.
If and when this talk starts, citizens should remember that a large portion of the tax they pay has been directed away from meeting basic needs.
Dennis Simpson is a local certified public accountant who closely observes local governments and their financial affairs.