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Bills offered to “cut the fat” in state house have different outcomes

Editors Note: this is the first in a series of articles Complete Colorado will run during the legislative session taking a look at bills that lawmakers propose to “cut the fat” from the taxpayer. First up two bills that were heard in committee last week, one in the House and one in the Senate and how each chamber handled the proposals.

Red Light Cameras, ‘policing for profit’?

DENVER — House Bill 18-1072, Red Light Camera Repeal, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Humphrey, R-Eaton in the House and Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton in the Senate, died a slow death in the House Transportation and Energy Committee on a 8-4 party line vote, with Republican Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs excused.

The bill took more than 2 hours in committee to debate with nearly two dozen people testifying against it.

HB 1072 would have repealed municipal, county and state government use of automated vehicle identification systems, including red light cameras,, preventing what Humphrey called “policing for profit.”

There was also discussion about the revenue collected by fines, which varied from going into the general fund to separate funds used to implement the system.

Humphrey did offer an amendment that would have allowed cities and counties to use the systems if they asked voters and were successful in their attempt. It failed 6-6.

“I’m not going to say that they never serve the purpose of public safety,” Humphrey said. “But I think they need to be more closely monitored and scrutinized … because there are concerns about not being able to confront your accuser.”

The cameras, currently used only in a handful of communities across the state, allow citations for such things as speeding and red-light violations via photographs. Humphrey said they don’t account for discretion by police officers, making all infractions black or white.

“These tickets are automated,” Humphrey said. “And they get a notice in the mail of their fines. In many cases, unless they are actually served, they don’t have to legally pay it.”

But opponents, mostly law enforcement officers, testified that the cameras help with man power and cut down on accidents because it modifies driver behavior both intersections where cameras are used and those where they are not.

Lt. Mike Trombley testified that his department in Fort Collins was the first in the state to use the cameras beginning in 1997.

“It’s become very accepted and very engrained as a part of our city,” Trombley said. “They are one of the tools of our traffic enforcement strategy.  It’s not the answer, but it’s an answer.”

He said Ft. Collins uses the system where there is not enough severity of violations that would justify a full-time officer to police, calling it a gentle reminder that there is still police presence in the area.

According to legislative services, the fiscal impact to six municipalities currently using the system would be about $2.5 million per year.

For 2016 and 2017 the city of Fort Collins lost $14,000 on the program, while Denver ($3.2 million) and Aurora ($1 million) made up the bulk of the profits.

The bill was postponed indefinitely on a party line vote.

Most people and governments are online so why aren’t county financials?

One bill that was successful at its first stop on Capitol Hill was Senate Bill 18-156, Publishing County Financial Reports Online Annually.

The bill sponsored by Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley would allow counties to begin posting certain public information, including expense reports, salary reports and financial statements, online annually instead of monthly or biannually in local newspapers.

“Most public information is available to anyone at any time on the internet, and every county in Colorado has a country government website that provides a wealth of information to its citizens,” Cooke said.

The change would save county governments, and ultimately taxpayers, hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, Cooke said.

Bob Sweeny, the owner of the The Villager newspaper which covers the south Denver Metro area, testified that he believes the bill is about Jefferson County’s desire to skirt transparency, saying there is no other support for the bill, and taking a stab at the small amount of money counties spend on legals in comparison to their overall budget.

Representatives from Colorado Counties Incorporated (CCI), a professional organization representing Colorado’s 64 county boards, were signed up to testify in favor of the bill but had to leave before the bill was heard, as it didn’t come before the State Veteran’s and Military Affairs Committee until late in the evening.

“What is (Weld County’s) budget?” Sweeny said. “$200, $300 million and they are spending $14,000. That’s a small fraction of their budget. Counties are making money on us. When we run delinquent tax lists they make thousands of dollars. They use us when we are convenient.”

The bill wouldn’t change the publication for legal notices or delinquent taxes. It would change the publication of expense and financial reports and county salaries only. Additionally, it would still require the county to publish a link to the online location in a legal newspaper within the county.

Jennifer Finch, spokeswoman for Weld County, said there are three types of legal notices Weld County pays to publish each year. Currently the Greeley Tribune publishes those notices. For 2018, the Greeley Tribune bid just more than $32,000 on an example set of notices designed to make the bidding process easier. That bid included all three types. Finch said the county paid the Greeley Tribune about $14,000 in 2017 for the type being proposed under the bill.

“Counties are the only local government entities that are required to publish their local financial information in the newspaper,” Cooke said. “The statutory requirement does not apply to cities or school districts or any other governmental entity in Colorado. So only counties are required to do this at some expense.”

Jefferson County Board of Commission member Tina Francone testified she believes this bill would give more people access to the county’s business, effectively making it more transparent. Currently it costs Jefferson county about $84,000 per year to publish the information.

“It will insure taxpayer’s dollars are spent more expediently and efficiently” Francone said. “Jefferson County posts all transactions on its website. This mandate that is only applicable to counties is unfair. It is an unnecessary expense to taxpayer.”

Francone said it would also speed up the delivery of the information to residents because they wouldn’t have to wait for the newspaper to publish.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, agreed, adding he believes it will reach more people, pointing out the readership of newspapers is only a fraction of the population.

The Sterling Journal Advocate readership is 3,864 with a population of 12,000, that’s 1 in 3, and the Fort Collins Coloradoan is 38,500 with a population is 164,000,” Sonnenberg said. “So only 1 in 4 are getting the information?”

Readership numbers are determined by multiplying subscription rates by 2.3 on average, said Greg Romberg, a lobbyist representing the majority of Colorado’s traditional media outlets. For example, using the readership numbers supplied to Sonnenberg by Romberg, the Fort Collins Coloradoan’s has a subscriber base just under 17,000.

Romberg argued people would become confused about where to find the information if it wasn’t in their local papers.

“When you think how decentralized we have become, the idea that you wouldn’t have some sort of centralized place to find out what’s going on …” Romberg said not completing his sentence. “You expect people to go find all this information on all these different websites.”

Sweeny also argued internet access isn’t available in all rural areas. But Francone pointed out that the bill doesn’t mandate one form of publication over another.

“It allows the counties and all other agencies to publish in newspaper if they wish,” she said.

Sen. Lois Court, D-Denver, voted yes on the bill because she said she wanted to continue the discussion but did have some concerns over smaller newspapers not being able to absorb the loss.

“I recognize the reality of how many people use the computer versus use the newspaper,” Court said. “I understand that it’s an efficiency issue and it saves taxpayer dollars. On the other hand, for newspapers, especially in smaller communities, these tax dollars are bread and butter for them. I recognize that if they die because of lack of this revenue, that’s lost jobs, but if we are using tax payer money unnecessarily, that’s not wise either.”

Cooke took exception to Sweeny minimizing the cost to a county in comparison to its overall budget and his attempt to categorize it as a Jefferson County only effort.

“It bothers me when people minimize taxpayer money,” Cook said. “So it’s $84,000? In Jeffco, it may be a very small percentage of their total budget, but that $84,000 could be a new patrol deputy or a new corrections deputy. It could be pay raises because they are losing deputies because of lack of pay, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s still taxpayer money. And it’s not just a Jeffco bill, CCI supports it, Weld County supports it … and there are still transparency requirements.”

The bill passed unanimously, 5-0, and is headed for second reading on the Senate Floor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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