The Mesa County commissioners owe an apology to citizens who were shut out of the recent distribution of the $5 million 2018 TABOR excess.
Using only superficial reasoning, they decided to refund the entire amount exclusively to those who own property. A very significant share was given to oil companies, large corporations, and wealthy individuals, even though almost all of this excess resulted from the 2018 increase in sales tax collections. We all pay sales tax and it is impossible to tell how much each of us pay, but it is blatantly obvious that property tax owners are not the sole source of sales tax. In fact, much of our sales tax comes from visitors to our community.
Last spring, I asked the commissioners to schedule time to thoroughly analyze options that would allow them to avoid sending millions out of Mesa County. They never got around to investing the time it would have taken to make a thoughtful decision. While no option would have been perfect, the lack of public discussion is most galling. They had plenty of time to vet this issue. Their schedules call for open meetings on most Mondays. These meetings are shown live on the internet and are recorded so citizens can watch and listen after the meetings are finished. They are scheduled to last three hours, but the business portion of the meetings rarely exceeds one hour. A weekly schedule of the commissioners’ time appears on their webpage. It is rare that anything at all is scheduled for the last three days of any week.
At a recent Monday meeting, I suggested that the commissioners consider an option that would have distributed the excess equally to all taxpayers. Because they had squandered the opportunity to send checks to people who don’t own property, the only remaining option was to place credits on property tax bills that will be mailed early in 2020. My suggestion called for the oil companies and wealthy residents to share equally with owners of small homes with each taxpayer getting a $60 rebate. Rather than take the time to explore this option, Commissioner Scott McInnis immediately dismissed it because it might cause “class warfare.” He went on to brand the idea as “socialistic.”
I have been called a lot of names as I try to change the way decisions are made in our community, but that was the first time anyone has accused me of promoting a socialist agenda.
If the TABOR excess had been driven by a spike in property tax collections, the refund to only property owners might be defensible. At the recent meeting, McInnis attempted to sell the idea that a significant portion of the excess resulted from property tax collections. As usual, he had not done his homework. Excess property tax collected in 2018 was a measly $85,000 and it was refunded when the 2018 tax bills were mailed in early 2019.
In my view, TABOR exists primarily to limit the growth of government without taxpayer approval. By not specifying how excess revenue must be distributed, the implication is that elected officials will thoughtfully examine options before proceeding. Our commissioners have dropped the ball big time on this one. By limiting refunds to those who own property, they have slammed the door in the face of voters whose support is crucial for TABOR’s survival. I fear that this decision will hasten the day when TABOR is put to death.
Dennis Simpson is a retired CPA with an intense commitment to transparency in our local government.