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El Paso County commissioners approve putting TABOR excess revenue question on November ballot

September 5, 2017 Updated: September 6, 2017 at 7:50 am
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Voters will decide in November if El Paso County will be allowed to retain roughly $14.5 million in excess revenue to pay for parks projects, disaster recovery efforts and infrastructure improvements, including the widening of Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock. (The Gazette)

El Paso County voters will decide this fall if roughly $14.5 million in excess government revenue will be returned to citizens via property tax credits or spent on park and infrastructure projects that county officials say are sorely needed.

Tuesday, commissioners voted 4-1, with Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr. opposed, to add the question to the Nov. 7 ballot.

Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR, ties increases in most local government revenues to a formula based on population growth and inflation. Excesses can only be used for voter-approved purposes.

If the measure is approved, about $12 million of the surplus will pay for roadway improvements, including at least $6 million that will be set aside to help fund the widening of Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock. The widening could get another boost from a ballot item that will ask many county voters if $10 million in tax revenues from the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority should be reserved to help pay for construction, which transportation officials say could begin in 2019 if the money can be found.

The pledges would be relatively small amounts, as the cost of widening the 17-mile stretch from two to three lanes is estimated at $290 million to $570 million. But regional leaders say the local contribution could leverage state and federal funds.

The TABOR surplus question also will ask for voters' permission to raise the county's revenue cap to reflect actual 2017 revenue, increasing the limit from about $330 million to about $345 million. Proponents say the boost will allow the government to avoid budget cuts, recover from the Great Recession in step with the rest of the economy and begin to address a $200 million backlog of deferred maintenance that swelled during the economic downturn.

Nearly half of this year's excess comes from money the state allocated to county programs, such as those offered by the Department of Human Services, said Nicola Sapp, the county's chief financial officer. Increases in property tax revenue from rising home values, sales tax revenue and money collected through county fees also have put the county over the legal limit, Sapp said. "We should be able to go to the voters saying, 'What do you want to do with these funds?'"

Commissioner Peggy Littleton said during the meeting. "We're asking the citizens to allow us to invest in our community,"

TABOR author Douglas Bruce, a former county commissioner, spoke out against the measure Tuesday. Although the question does not ask for a tax hike, permitting the government to retain the surplus would effectively increase the tax burden on residents because property owners would otherwise receive a refund, Bruce said.

The tax credit would depend on a property's value. If the measure fails, the owner of a $250,000 single-family home will receive a one-time $40 tax credit.

"If this is defeated, at the end of the year, we're going to have more tax money in our pocket," said Bruce, who was convicted in 2012 of felony  tax evasion and filing a false tax return. "We'll have $15 million more in taxpayers' hands."

Bruce also said the measure violates state law by adjusting the county's revenue base, ultimately allowing the government to keep about $15 million more in future years without consulting voters about how the money should be used.

Other local governments have put similar questions to citizens, some using the same or similar language to the wording county voters will see, said Lori Seago, senior assistant county attorney. The measure asks for a one-time amendment to the base, she said. In future years, as usual, the revenue cap will be calculated by subbing the previous year's limit into the TABOR-mandated formula.

The excess also may be used to pay for upgrades to South Academy Boulevard, Marksheffel Road and Meadowbrook Parkway, Chipita Park Road and U.S. 24, and Fountain Mesa Road and Caballero Avenue. About $1 million would become a local match for roughly $3 million in federal disaster recovery funds that officials warn will be lost if the county can't pay its share; the money likely would be used to repair the New Santa Fe Trail, Stratmoor Valley Park and other areas damaged during 2015 floods. Other county parks, trails and open spaces would benefit from the roughly $1.5 million remaining.

Before voting "nay," Gonzalez cited his campaign promise to address financial challenges facing the county through the regular budgeting process.

More than a dozen people have expressed support for the measure at public hearings.

"This is critical to the county and our regional infrastructure," Kate Hatten, president and CEO of Peak Military Care Network, told commissioners Tuesday. "It's critical to our quality of life."

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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