Revenue surpluses don’t happen every year — especially in a county that historically has been economically challenged — so maybe we should cut the Mesa County commissioners some slack for not knowing how to handle one.
They tossed around a few ideas — some quite creative and community-minded — in an apparent attempt to come with the most “equitable” solution for refunding $5.1 million owed to county taxpayers under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
These “discussions” covered the gamut of refund scenarios, but in the end they proved to be nothing more than a distraction. All that talk merely served as a stall tactic until the clock ran out.
“The 2018 TABOR refund has to be issued in ’19,” Commissioner Rose Pugliese said Monday. “The only way we can do that now with two weeks left in December is to do it through a property mill levy reduction. I don’t see the board has any other options.”
The option of last resort is also the least fair to the taxpayers, as far as we’re concerned.
The fairest thing, in our view, would have been for commissioners to ask voters if the county could retain the surplus and apply it to a pressing public need — the costly jail expansion that’s anticipated, for example. It would have helped reduce costs for a project that likely will need taxpayer support.
Voters may have said no. Heck, we’ll go so far as to say they probably wouldn’t have passed such a TABOR exception. But asking is simply good manners. By not asking, commissioners essentially declared they don’t care about the public’s input and would decide for themselves what to do with the public’s money.
From there, commissioners could have asked “how can we spread these refunds around so that they touch the most people?” After all, the surplus was derived from growing commerce, not property taxes. Sales tax receipts were up in 2018. Everybody pays sales taxes, not just property owners.
As the Sentinel’s Charles Ashby reported last month, sales tax revenues make up about 26% of the county budget. Property taxes only make up half that amount. Additionally, about 36% of a property tax refund would go to about 10 out-of-county property owners, many of which are in the oil and gas industry. Their chunk of the refund is about $1.6 million.
Mesa County has a comparatively low property tax rate, but the highest sales tax rate of any county in the state. Any talk of an “equitable” refund should have made property owners a low priority for refunds.
Naturally, commissioners decided to give back the $5.1 million surplus via a temporary mill levy reduction. That means that instead of property owners paying the county the same 12.162 mills that’s been levied since 2010, the county will impose a temporary 8.554 mills for property tax payments in 2019. If you own property, congratulations on winning the TABOR sweepstakes.
If you don’t, that jail expansion you’ll be asked to pay for later with a tax increase suddenly seems like a better use of the refund, doesn’t it? That’s what so frustrating about our commissioners’ action. Had they specified the alternative to voters rejecting a TABOR exception, such a measure might have passed — if commissioners posed the question.
By the way, the owner of a home valued at $250,000 will see a reduction of around $46 on their property tax bill. Try not to spend it all in one place — except for the $1.6 million leaving the county.