County plans to hire Baier for top spot

ROSE PUGLIESE

Mesa County's three commissioners want to know what people think about an idea of allowing the county to retain surplus revenue to help defray the cost of expanding its detention center.

The county already owes taxpayers about $5 million in revenue that it took in last year over what the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights allows.

But because of an expected $20 million need to expand the Mesa County Jail, and the fact that most of that TABOR surplus money goes to oil and gas companies based out of state, the commissioners want to know if voters would agree to put that money toward the expansion project.

As a result, the commissioners want to see if the public would accept a proposed ballot measure for this fall asking them to retain surplus money and dedicate it to the expansion project.

But that's not the only idea they would consider.

"During the next few weeks, we really do want to encourage public participation on this thing," said Commissioner Scott McInnis. "There's a lot of questions that need to be answered."

One of those questions is whether the county should have a ballot measure asking voters to exempt it from TABOR's revenue cap for one year, or for several years, at least as long as it takes to come up with some, if not all, of the money needed to expand the overcrowded jail.

Another question would alter the way the county refunds excess revenues, such as designating it for some other county-funded program and freeing up money for the jail.

By law, that's something that doesn't require voter approval, but the commissioners may seek it anyway.

Under TABOR, local and state governments are limited on how much revenue they are allowed to retain, but it is silent on how to make those refunds, which are separate from refunds taxpayers get on their income.

Currently, the county makes such refunds, which are rare, through a temporary lowering of its mill levy.

That mechanism, however, means that the bulk of the refund money goes to the largest property taxpayers, meaning most of the money goes out of state, commissioners said.

"My understanding is that 10 of the 14 (of the largest taxpayers) … are oil and gas pipelines," McInnis said. "The only purpose for doing this for multiple years is to fund the expansion of that jail facility. Our situation is, there is great taxpayer fatigue in this county, but we're running out of room (in the jail). Our county budget cannot handle this out of the general fund."

County Administrator Frank Whitten said last year's TABOR surplus was an unusual thing. He said future TABOR revenue surpluses likely would be small, if at all.

Last year's voter approval of allowing the county to not include state grants under its TABOR cap means the county has more room under it, and is less likely to exceed it anytime soon.

The Mesa County Sheriff's Office is in the process of determining the size and scope of expanding the existing jail.

As of Monday, there were 509 inmates housed in a facility that can handle up to 611 people, and that with double bunking and temporary bed space.

Initially, the jail was built to handle about 390 inmates.

Earlier this year, the department hired a consulting firm to create blueprints and come up with a final cost to build a 160-bed, multi-story addition, which would be complete with a medical/mental health observation unit with suicide prevention units. That work is expected to be completed by the fall.

To get on this year's ballot, the commission must decide what it would propose, if anything, by Aug. 27.

"We will continue to have public discussions throughout the summer to gather feedback and input from our constituents as to the best manner to refund these TABOR refunds or a potential ballot question," said Commissioner Rose Pugliese.

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