City says revenue not keeping up with Grand Junction’s growth

The city of Grand Junction, which is asking voters to approve a quarter-cent sales-tax increase to pay for seven new public safety buildings, pulls in the second most sales-tax revenue per capita among the largest cities in Colorado.

A Daily Sentinel review of sales tax collected by the 25 most populated cities in the state found Grand Junction accumulates $1,027.32 per city resident in sales and use tax. The per capita figure is based on the city’s population of 46,898, as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2006, and the $48.2 million in tax receipts the city reported last year.

Grand Junction is accumulating more revenue per person with fewer means. Its 2.75 percent sales tax ranks higher than only Colorado Springs and Centennial, which each have a 2.5 percent rate, among the largest cities. Broomfield, the only city that collects more revenue per capita than Grand Junction with $1,263.57, has a 4.15 percent rate, which is the highest among the most populated cities in the state.

Per capita, Grand Junction took in less revenue than five other Western Slope municipalities: Aspen, Durango, Glenwood Springs, Rifle and Steamboat Springs. But it collected more sales-tax dollars last year than five cities with larger populations: Centennial, Greeley, Longmont, Loveland and Pueblo.

Former Mesa County commissioner John Crouch claims the fact the city’s sales-tax revenue has grown an average of 8.7 percent a year over the past decade is evidence the city has enough money.

“We’re sitting on a mountain of cash coming in here,” he said. “We’re extremely fortunate. Other cities probably aren’t enjoying that.”

But the city’s second-place per-capita ranking, and the appearance that its sales-tax coffers are richer than most other cities, are deceiving, city officials say.

Financial Operations Manager Jodi Romero said only 18 percent of the city’s sales-tax revenue comes from city residents, affirming Grand Junction’s position as a regional shopping destination.

Beyond being a retail attraction, Grand Junction serves as a regional center for medical care and higher education and provides public safety and recreation services beyond the city and to people who live outside city limits.

“We’re supporting a much larger number than that 46,000,” Romero said, noting the city’s daytime population swells to more than 100,000.

Also, unlike most Front Range cities that are either built out or have hit a plateau in their growth, Grand Junction continues to add residents at a 2 percent or higher clip annually, increasing the demand for services subsidized by sales tax.

“There is a significant difference between being a regional draw for retail services versus being a regional draw for all sorts of services,” Deputy Police Chief Troy Smith said.

Sales tax drives the city’s economic engine. More than two-thirds of Grand Junction’s $69 million general fund, which pays for most city services, comes from sales-tax revenue. Public safety (36 percent) and parks and recreation (10 percent) eat up nearly half of the general fund.

Many other cities’ budgets are supplemented with revenue from special districts that Grand Junction doesn’t have.

Thirteen of the 25 largest cities have parks and recreation districts that are funded by property tax. Eleven cities generate additional property tax revenue through fire districts, according to Romero.

BUSY CANYON VIEW PARK

City officials point to Canyon View Park and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department as examples of venues and departments that garner regional use. Romero said the demand on Canyon View demonstrates the need for another regional park in the city.

“Could that park get any busier? I don’t think so,” she said.

The city is proposing to bump its sales-tax rate up to 3 percent and use the additional revenue to help
fund a $98 million public safety initiative.

The project would include the construction of a new downtown police station, a new downtown fire station, three neighborhood fire stations, a new 911 dispatch center, a new municipal courtroom, an annex and a parking garage. The tax increase would generate a little more than $5 million a year.

A second question on the Nov. 4 ballot asks voters to allow the city to keep revenue it otherwise would refund to taxpayers under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

City officials say the money would be used to pay off the public safety initiative debt and fund other capital projects and city services.

Some of those services are provided outside the city, particularly in public safety.

Smith and Fire Chief Ken Watkins said police officers and firefighters are called upon to serve a large area extending beyond the Grand Valley because their departments are the only ones with the expertise in the area.

Smith said the Police Department’s SWAT team and bomb squad cover all of western Colorado, with the closest bomb squads in Jefferson County on the Front Range and in Salt Lake City. He said the Grand Junction bomb squad recently swept 15 buildings in Aspen in advance of a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Watkins said the Fire Department has the only hazardous materials team in western Colorado, compared to the three regional teams that operate in the metro Denver area. He said agencies such as
Mesa County and the Bureau of Land Management pay some fees for the services provided by the hazardous materials team, but it’s not enough to cover the expenses.


GOOD NEIGHBOR SERVICES

Some taxpayers may be upset by the fact city tax money is being spent outside the city. But Smith and
Watkins said in addition to the agencies’ desire to operate under a “good neighbor” premise, the services offered in and with other jurisdictions can lead to better training and equipment and additional sources of funding.

As an example, Smith pointed to the city’s recent acquisition of a mobile communications vehicle to use in critical incidents. The $660,000 vehicle was purchased with federal dollars passed down through the state Department of Local Affairs, a tool that can be used across the region that Smith said the city likely wouldn’t have been able to afford with its own money.

Crouch, though, believes a tax increase isn’t the way to pay for those projects and services. He said city officials have known for years that the downtown fire and police stations were too small but instead built a new City Hall and the downtown parking garage — projects he considers less imperative.

“Instead of building things they need, they have built things to comfort them,” he said.

Crouch also noted the city and county have completed several other capital projects in recent years without raising taxes, including Riverside Parkway, City Hall, a new Department of Human Services building and the methamphetamine treatment facility, among others.

“I want public safety. I want infrastructure. I know I have to pay for it,” he said. “Let’s do it in a way that isn’t backbreaking and isn’t one tax on top of another and won’t leave a burden with my grandchildren.”

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