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Douglas Bruce files another lawsuit against El Paso County

January 3, 2018 Updated: January 4, 2018 at 12:06 pm
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photo - FILE - Douglas Bruce is questioned during a public hearing regarding the City's Independent Ethics Commission complaint 2015-01 involving Councilwoman Helen Collins at the Judicial Arbiter Group on Tuesday, January 5, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette
FILE - Douglas Bruce is questioned during a public hearing regarding the City's Independent Ethics Commission complaint 2015-01 involving Councilwoman Helen Collins at the Judicial Arbiter Group on Tuesday, January 5, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette 

Anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce is - once again - accusing a local government of violating the law that he wrote.

Bruce, author of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR, filed a lawsuit against El Paso County on Dec. 26 alleging that the county owes taxpayers a multimillion-dollar refund because it understated the revenue a proposed public safety tax would generate before voters approved the measure in 2012.

In its first year, the 0.23-percent sales tax generated about $900,000 more than county officials predicted.

Bruce, a former state legislator and El Paso County commissioner who was convicted of felony tax evasion and filing a false tax return in 2012, has long sought legal recourse over disagreements with public officials. He has sued Colorado Springs, the county or both more than a dozen times over election-related issues, and the court has repeatedly sided with the governments.

In 2012, Issue 1A asked for county voters' permission to increase taxes "up to $17 million annually" to meet public safety needs. The revenue it has generated has always exceeded that figure and has increased steadily, from about $17.9 million in 2013 to nearly $22 million in 2016, according to the county's most recently available data.

In a statement responding to the lawsuit, county spokesman Dave Rose said the initial estimates were based on data gathered following the Great Recession and were intended to give voters "a general idea of collections that might be expected if the current economic conditions continued." Retail sales have since bounced back, bolstering sales tax collections.

"Voters are consistently more discerning than some people assume," Rose said. "They understood that they were approving a 0.23 percent sales tax for critical public safety needs and they understand that if retail sales go up there will be additional money available for that purpose, and, likewise, that if sales fall short some of the promised improvements may be delayed."

TABOR, an amendment to the state constitution that Coloradans approved in 1992, aims to limit the size of government by tying year-to-year increases in government revenue with population growth and inflation. It stipulates that governments proposing a tax increase must provide estimates for the maximum dollar amounts that will be collected each year through the measure; any excess must be returned to voters the following year or used for voter-approved purposes. If there is a surplus, the tax increase must also be reduced "up to 100 percent in proportion to the combined dollar excess," the law states.

TABOR also allows individuals or groups to file civil "enforcement suits" against governments they believe have violated its provisions; if those governments have illegally "collected, kept or spent" revenue for four full fiscal years, that money must be refunded to taxpayers with interest.

Bruce said in the complaint, filed in 4th Judicial District Court, that the county owes ratepayers a refund of about $4.5 million, plus 10 percent interest for 2013 and the following four years it held on to the $900,000 excess.

He asked that the court order the county to reduce the 0.23 percent sales tax to the TABOR-required rate within 30 days and reimburse taxpayers in compliance with the law.

"In this case, the county knew it had violated the constitution, yet did nothing about it," Bruce said in the filing.

If the county had to reimburse ratepayers, it would likely do so through property tax credits - although how much each property owner would receive remains unclear. In the past, county officials have said a roughly $15 million excess would equate to a tax credit of about $40 for the owner of a $250,000 home.

Bruce, who is representing himself in the lawsuit, declined to comment Wednesday afternoon.

In 2013, he filed a lawsuit against the city over seven issues, from allegations that the City Council was getting unlawful perks to $10,000 in fees from Colorado Springs Utilities that he called "capricious and arbitrary." He was ordered to foot the city's legal bill of about $7,800 in 2015 after losing the case.

About two years ago, he filed another complaint accusing Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman of violating TABOR by printing false information on the ballot and notice for the upcoming election. Most recently, he sued City Clerk Sarah Johnson in February, arguing that comments submitted in favor of measures in last spring's election were filed illegally and should be void. Both cases were dismissed a few days after Bruce filed the claims, according to records provided to The Gazette by the city and the county.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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