Law enforcement officials in Delta County and several of its towns are trying again to get voters to approve a special public safety tax, but they may be violating state campaign finance laws in doing so, experts said.
Last year, county residents narrowly rejected a proposal by 216 votes to increase the county’s sales tax rate by 1% to raise money for the Delta County Sheriff’s Office and law enforcement agencies in Delta, Paonia, Hotchkiss and Cedaredge.
This year, they are trying again with Measure 1A, but this time with a much lower request, a 0.8% hike in the county’s sales tax rate, which currently sits at 2%.
“Last year when it failed, we all felt a little bit deflated so we weren’t sure that maybe this really is something the community wants. Taxes are always a touchy subject,” said Delta County Sheriff Mark Taylor. “But immediately after the election, we started hearing from the community asking to run this again. The majority of the community really understands the need.”
Taylor said several issues are at play right now, not the least of which is diminishing tax revenue from the recent pandemic and what it did to the economy.
At the same time, crime is up in the county over last year, particularly property and drug crimes, some of which may be partly related to the pandemic, Taylor said.
Mesa County Sheriff Matt Lewis and District Attorney Dan Rubinstein made similar arguments in 2017 when they asked voters to approve a much lower public safety tax — 0.37% — which was approved overwhelmingly.
Taylor said the county’s needs are similar to what Mesa County faced, such as financial needs at its county jail and dispatch center.
Under the proposal, which is expected to raise about $2.7 million a year, the Sheriff’s Office would get 52%, or about $1.4 million. Meanwhile, the Delta Police Department would see 31% or about $850,000; Cedaredge Police Department would get 7%, or $192,000; Paonia police, 6%, or $164,000; and the Hotchkiss Town Marshal’s Office 4%, or $109,000.
Taylor said that breakdown is based on population and the average number of emergency calls from the various municipalities, adding that each plans to use the extra money to hire additional deputies and police officers.
“We’re never going to be able to stop crime, but I think it’s going to be a big help just having more officers on the street,” he said. “Last year, and this year, my main focus was getting good, quality deputies. We had lost quite a few people to different agencies mainly because they can make a lot more money. We had a big turnover.”
Taylor believes that because this is a presidential election year, more people will turn out to vote.
Like Taylor, Cedaredge resident Jill McGee, a volunteer for the Back The Badge campaign, said she believes that the backlash to national calls to defund the police also will help, saying that the Blue Lives Matter movement created to counter Black Lives Matter efforts is wildly popular in Delta County.
She said the campaign so far has raised more than $2,500 and has spent most of it on yard signs, with more to come.
It’s those yard signs that are at the center of a possible campaign finance problem.
Someone with the campaign, it’s unclear who, has posted messages on several government-run social media sites promoting the ballot measure.
Those postings — on the Facebook pages of the county, the town of Cedaredge and the Delta Police Department — say that voters can get on a waiting list to obtain yard signs by calling the Sheriff’s Office, which posts that number. The posts go on to say that the campaign signs are available at the Sheriff’s Office and the law enforcement offices of the four municipalities.
Additionally, the Sheriff Office’s director of emergency management and public relations officer, Kris Stewart, is heading up the campaign to get the measure passed.
The problem is similar to one that now-Delta County Commissioner Don Suppes had in 2014. Then, he got into hot water when he was mayor of Orchard City and was using the town’s hall to run a campaign for Colorado Senate, a race he didn’t win. He later went on to be elected to the County Commission.
According to three campaign finance experts, the Back the Badge postings and making signs available at the law enforcement offices may be in violation of the Colorado Fair Campaign Practices Act.
Denver attorney Christopher Jackson, who specializes in campaign finance law, Colorado State University Political Science Professor Robert Duffy and Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause that wrote the campaign finance law all agreed that state law is clear that using taxpayer-funded government resources in a political campaign is a big no-no.
“Under Colorado state law you cannot use public resources to campaign, and there is a statute that prohibits that,” Jackson said.
Duffy agreed, adding that the law does allow government employees such as Stewart to campaign for or against candidates or ballot measures, but only if they do so on their own time.
Gonzalez said the law may be difficult to understand, but its purpose is clear.
“Laws like this are important because they help preserve the public’s trust in government,” she said. “Whether there has been a campaign finance violation here or not, when it appears that public funds are being used to tip the scales on ballot initiatives or when public resources are being used to further a specific ideology or partisan bent, that erodes voters’ faith in our public systems.”
Taylor said he agrees and plans to correct any issues.
“We certainly want to do the right thing and not violate any laws or campaign rules, for sure,” Taylor said after being made aware of the issue. “As far as Kris’s time and when he does anything for Back the Badge, it’s on his own time.”
Taylor said that when he learned of the possible violations Friday, he immediately contacted the Secretary of State’s Office and got a confusing answer, which was that laws on this are silent.
Still, the sheriff said he doesn’t want anyone to perceive that taxpayer money is being used improperly, and, in an abundance of caution, said he would correct any possible violations, perceived or otherwise.
“We’ve told people they can come pick up the signs without realizing we may be breaking any kind of rule,” Taylor said. “We’re not putting any money into it, they’re just available. We have enough people that are happy to hand those out for us, so it’s an easy fix.”