Mesa County's three commissioners are hoping to find a better way to refund about $5.1 million in surplus revenue that it must return under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

In the past, the county would do so through a property tax credit, but the commissioners said they were somewhat hesitant about using that mechanism for two reasons, one of which is that a good portion of it would end up in the hands of out-of-area property owners.

The bigger reason, however, is that the surplus revenue didn't come from property tax payers.

Instead, it stemmed from sales tax revenues. Those revenues make up about 26% of the county's budget, while property taxes are about half that amount.

Additionally, about 36% of refunds through a property tax mechanism, such as a temporary reduction in the county's mill levy, would go to about 10 out-of-county property owners. That's about $1.6 million.

The commissioners said it's clear that county residents want their money back, but how to do so in a way that maximizes that goal is easier said than done.

As a result, they are looking at a few other options, some of which might not be doable, such as a sales tax holiday.

That mechanism would be hard for businesses to accomplish, in part because it would require them to cut out only the county's sales tax, but still collect the tax assessed by the state and area municipalities.

It also would be difficult to know when to end the holiday, because knowing when the $5.1 million threshold is reached would be hard to determine.

That's why commissioners are eyeballing other options.

"Under the statutes, it seems like there's not a lot of parameters that dictate how we give the money as long as we can determine that they are going to Mesa County residents," Commissioner Rose Pugliese said at Monday's board meeting.

"I'm not sure we can figure out a way to refund it that's going to be totally equitable," added Commissioner Scott McInnis. "There's a lot of interests in this community that are owned by out-of-state people. Second homes, out-of-state people spending money here."

While TABOR requires all governments to refund any excess revenue they take in, it is nearly silent on how that should be done.

For local governments, one main suggestion is the temporary property tax reduction, but it is not limited to that.

That's why Pugliese suggested the county consider putting half the revenue toward that reduction, and spend the rest on the Mesa County Workforce Center to help retrain county residents who have lost their jobs and are seeking new careers.

"We have a lot of displaced workers, and there's probably more to come," she said. "Using that money to help get them some additional training and skills so that they and their families can stay in our community and not on the government system I think might be something for this board to consider."

McInnis, however, questioned just how effective such programs are, pointing to recent news articles about the Trump administration cutting funding to job training programs.

The administration has cut money for many federal retraining programs, preferring instead to fund apprenticeship programs. Last summer, Trump officials proposed, then reversed a decision to close some Job Corps centers around the nation, and hire private contractors to operate the ones that would have remained.

McInnis said county residents could get training, but for what jobs?

"You can retrain people, but you don't have the jobs," he said. "You can retrain them all you want, if you don't have the jobs. We should look at those kind of things before we jump into it."

Andrew Golike, general manager at CoorsTek and a new board member of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, told commissioners that workforce development is something that county businesses sorely need, and suggested that Pugliese's idea would be a good way to help the entire community.

"We have a lot of up-skill needs for our workers in this economy," Golike said. "I think we have to prepare workers for the jobs that are coming, and jobs that are coming quickly. I'm advocating for that if you could return the TABOR refund in this way. The advantage to all in the community is that we prepare workers for the jobs that are coming."

Another refund option would call for the county to purchase something that all residents can share in, such as a park or open space. The idea of using such money for a normal operating or capital improvement expense, however, is not.

That last part came up when commissioners wondered if it could use the money to help expand the Mesa County Jail. Earlier this year, commissioners were discussing the possibility of putting a measure on the ballot to ask voters if they could dedicate the money for that $21 million project, but decided against it, in part, because they feared it would fail because of other measures that were on the fall ballot.

Other options include providing scholarships for county residents, or writing checks to county residents directly.

Commissioners actually have until next June to decide how it would refund the excess revenue, but hope to actually decide before the end of the year.

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