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TABOR reset would prevent big budget cuts, El Paso County official says

August 29, 2017 Updated: August 30, 2017 at 7:47 am
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If El Paso County does not get voters' permission in November to adjust a state-mandated revenue cap, the resulting budget cuts could have "devastating" effects, the county's chief financial officer warned at a Tuesday hearing.

Residents at the meeting expressed support for a proposed ballot measure that would let the county retain about $14.5 million in excess revenue to pay for disaster recovery repairs, park projects and infrastructure improvements, including money toward the widening of Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock.

But the proposal also has a provision that officials say could hold equal importance for county residents' quality of life.

Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR) limits the annual growth of local government revenues and requires any surplus to be returned to taxpayers unless voters approve a raised cap, use of the extra revenue for specific purposes or both.

The restriction has curbed the county's recovery from the Great Recession, allowing economic growth to outpace the government's ability to serve the public with the money it's allowed to spend, said county Chief Financial Officer Nicola Sapp.

So in addition to asking voters for permission to keep roughly $14.5 million in excess revenue, the proposed ballot measure would seek approval to adjust the revenue base to reflect 2017 revenues, raising the cap from about $330 million to roughly $345 million.

Next year's limit would be calculated by subbing this year's cap into an equation that takes into account population growth and inflation. But the one-time boost to the base would effectively "level the playing field" for years to come, Sapp said, giving the county the leg up it needs to recover from the recession by allowing it to retain enough revenue to provide for a growing population.

If the cap is not adjusted, the county budget will be slashed by millions of dollars, which could lead to staffing cuts, longer wait times for services, and reduced maintenance of roads and bridges, she said. Cuts are predicted to amount to about $2 million in 2019 and roughly $14 million - enough to pay about 250 employees - in 2020, Sapp said.

The adjustment also would let the county begin to address a $200 million backlog of deferred infrastructure maintenance created when the government had to tighten its belt during the recession, she said.

"We, truly, commissioners, are at a crossroads," Sapp told the board. "If we were to do this TABOR reset, we would still be able to function without requesting a tax increase from the voters."

Commissioners will vote Tuesday  on whether the measure will make it onto the ballot for the Nov. 7 election. The regular meeting starts at 9 a.m. at 200 S. Cascade Ave.

Commissioners Darryl Glenn, Mark Waller, Peggy Littleton and Stan VanderWerf said they favor putting the question to voters.

"It will have a tremendous impact on our county employees and our ability to provide services," said Glenn, the board's president. "We want to give you the opportunity to make that decision."

Representatives from the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs, county's Park Advisory Board and the local chamber of commerce expressed support for the measure.

Dirk Draper, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce & EDC, said local funding is key to attracting federal and state dollars to complete the I-25 widening project.

"We hear on a daily basis from local businesses how this impacts them," Draper said, referring to the highly trafficked 17-mile "gap" in which I-25 is two lanes in each direction rather than three.

The measure would set aside at least $6 million to help pay for the widening. The project, expected to cost up to $570 million, could begin as early as 2019 if the money can be found, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.

A separate ballot question, finalized by the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority on Aug. 9, would add the widening to a list of projects the agency can fund with transportation tax revenues, clearing the way for another $10 million contribution.

The proposed county ballot question also would set aside up to $6 million for other roadway improvements, $1.5 million for park upgrades and $1 million as a local match for about $3 million in federal disaster recovery funds needed for repairs following the 2015 floods.

If the measure is not approved, the county's "TABOR excess" would be returned to taxpayers through a property tax credit that would vary based on a property's value. An owner of a $250,000 single-family home, for example, would receive a one-time credit of roughly $40, Sapp said. 

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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