Voters have allowed local governments to exceed budget limits

Most of the time, but only temporarily

Mesa County residents overwhelmingly have been agreeable to local governments bypassing revenue limits imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, even in a community long considered one of the most fiscally conservative in Colorado.

A Daily Sentinel analysis of county election records found that since voters approved the constitutional amendment in 1992, residents nearly two-thirds of the time approved ballot questions that exempted municipalities and special districts from restrictions on how much money they can collect.

Local tax-collecting agencies ranging from Mesa County and School District 51 to small fire and sanitation districts have specifically asked voters to override TABOR 30 times. All but four ballot measures passed.

There were another 26 questions in which voters were asked to de-Bruce — the term refers to TABOR author Douglas Bruce and is a means of overriding the amendment’s requirements — as part of a larger question seeking to sell bonds or increase taxes. Voters on 10 of those occasions approved.

All in all, in one form or another, voters have said “yes” to eliminating revenue restrictions in Mesa County 36 out of 56 occasions.

Yet voters have clung tightly enough to their wallets and purses to make Grand Junction the largest municipality in Colorado that hasn’t permanently secured revenue — be it property or sales taxes, grants or fees — otherwise refunded to taxpayers. Out of 271 cities and towns in the state, Grand Junction and six others are the only ones not to permanently de-Bruce any source of money, according to a Sentinel review of Colorado Municipal League data.

Jim Spehar, who spent four years as a county commissioner and eight years as Grand Junction mayor and council member, said he was surprised to learn of the success rate in repealing TABOR’s revenue limitations. He wasn’t surprised, however, that city residents have yet to allow Grand Junction to permanently keep money above what TABOR allows.

“This is a fairly conservative area that is very supportive of TABOR,” said Spehar, a former president of the Colorado Municipal League. “It has the tradition of TABOR supporters getting really fired up when you have any attempt to tamper with that constitutional amendment.”

Spehar said voters, when asked to de-Bruce, have come to expect local governments and other tax-collecting entities to specify how they plan to spend the additional money and sunset how long the
TABOR override will be in effect.

The county’s history of elections appears to support that view.

Of the four de-Brucing measures rejected by voters, one proposed to be permanent. The others included a sunset provision but didn’t specifically indicate how the money would be spent.

Grand Junction city officials hope the passage of 26 de-Brucing measures in 15 years serves as a bellwether for November.

City residents will decide then whether to bump the city’s 2.75 percent sales tax by a quarter-percent to help pay for $98 million in new public safety buildings. They also will vote whether to allow the city to retain and spend revenue that would otherwise be refunded to taxpayers under TABOR.

If approved, the city would permanently be able to retain all sources of revenue above TABOR limits and spend it on capital projects and city services.

City leaders say they didn’t seek to limit how the money could be spent or reapply TABOR caps because Grand Junction is consistently growing and has no way to pay for numerous capital needs.

“I think our community is very well aware that we have huge needs — for roads, for parks, for a great number of things,” Mayor Gregg Palmer said.

City Manager Laurie Kadrich said the city has identified $345 million in unfunded capital projects it would like to complete between 2014 and 2024. A little more than 40 percent of that amount — $145 million — is intended for road expansion and maintenance. A total of $100 million would go toward building new facilities and maintaining existing ones, $90 million would build Las Colonias, Matchett, Saccomanno and Burkey parks, and $10 million would pay for citizen-driven programs such as alley improvements, curb,
gutter and sidewalk installation and street lights.

Kadrich said city officials chose not to limit the additional revenue that would come from de-Brucing to paying off the public safety project because it would take until 2022 to do so.

“They know there are other needs, other revenues available,” Kadrich said of council members. “By attaching all of those revenues to the public safety initiative, they wouldn’t allow for future council members to address some of the road concerns.”

The city is also confident that voters understand its myriad needs, based on a phone survey of 400 residents conducted last month. When asked if they would allow the city to de-Bruce, more voters said they favored using the additional money to pay for capital projects and city services (61 percent) than those who preferred limiting the revenue to paying off the public safety initiative debt (57 percent).

Kadrich said she thinks the survey results would have been different if residents didn’t believe that Grand Junction will continue to grow.

“That’s the difference between us and other communities. We’re a growing community,” she said.

Opponents, though, say handing the city what amounts to a blank check is a dangerous proposition, particularly if the local economy goes sour.

“If the government, even in a temporary expansion, gets to spend a lot of money, it almost obligates them to continue to spend in the future,” said Gene Kinsey, a former mayor and councilman who blogs frequently on national and local political issues. “There’s never any limit to what they consider a good idea or what they could spend money on.”

Kinsey said he believes local governments should de-Bruce “very carefully — it should almost be an emergency situation.” He also said he doesn’t buy the argument that the city’s infrastructure needs exceed its means to pay for them as a reason to de-Bruce.

“You could go to any single homeowner and their needs would far outstrip their money,” Kinsey said.


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