The deadline is fast approaching for the Mesa County commissioners to decide how they will deal with the $4.5 million TABOR excess from 2018. They have yet to hold the first public meeting to discuss this topic among the three of them and it is becoming more and more likely that they plan to run out the clock and announce a decision with little or no disclosure of how the decision was reached. This is the way almost every decision is reached at Sixth and Rood.
The commissioners have the option of retaining the excess revenue by asking voters for approval. If they choose not to place the issue on the November ballot or if the ballot issue fails, the excess revenue must be refunded to taxpayers. If the revenue is refunded, the method for making this refund is at the commissioner's discretion.
Commissioner Scott McInnis recently stated that it is likely that the county will refund the excess. He did not explain how this tentative decision was reached. I had hoped that the commissioners would publicly discuss serious problems within county government that may need immediate attention. If we really need the jail expansion, why hasn't this potential use of the TABOR excess been openly considered?
The distribution method used in prior years is to simply divide the excess among all entities that pay county property tax according to the amount of property tax each entity is assessed. Thus, oil companies, larger chain stores and people with multimillion-dollar homes get far more than most county residents. This method might make just a little bit of sense if the TABOR excess resulted from a bumper year in property tax collections, but it didn't. The driver for the 2018 excess was primarily sales tax. We all pay sales tax and our elected officials should be devoting time, in a public setting, to developing a more equitable method of distribution.
The problem with looking at other options is that they also have weaknesses. Other options will likely cause more administrative overhead than the method used in prior years. There is no other option that will be 100% fair to everyone, and commissioners will take some heat, regardless of the method chosen. When I spoke to the commissioners in May, I urged them to accept that all options will have warts but that they not let these warts be used as reasons to discard any option out of hand.
My suggestion is that the commissioners commit to a system that will get the most money into the hands of people who live here with a bias toward those on the lower end of the economic scale. The fact that other options may cost more in staff time and mailing should not be overriding. Let's say a new option could deliver $4.3 million to local taxpayers with an administrative cost of $200,000 while the incumbent option can be done with no administrative cost but results in $2 million going to large out-of-state corporations, and $2.5 million going to those of us who live here — with a guarantee that people living in rentals will get zero. I believe most people would favor the new option even though it is not perfect.
Commissioners have said they are interested in alternative methods, but those comments are just lip service. While they will listen (usually in a polite manner) to what a citizen may say, they have absolutely no intention of following up.
The reasonable method of reaching this decision would be to ask staff to prepare a list of options and fairly list the pros and cons of each with no prejudice to any one option. The commissioners and the public could then engage in a meaningful discussion that will lead to a decision based on facts and sound logic.
Dennis Simpson is a self-appointed watchdog of local government, a role he considers a community service. He is a CPA with experience in government accounting.