STEAMBOAT SPRINGS —Routt County Treasurer and Public Trustee Brita Horn has filed suit in the 14th Judicial District against the Routt County Board of County Commissioners, claiming they are attempting to usurp her office by illegally abating tax interest.
Horn said the vote that led to the lawsuit came just a few weeks after the woman representing the property owner who benefited from the abatement donated to one of the commissioner’s re-election campaigns.
County Commissioner Cari Hermacinski says Horn is wasting thousands in taxpayer’s dollars to argue a $523 expense that could have been collected had Horn simply notified the property owner it was due.
Horn told Complete Colorado that while she recognizes the cost of her attorney is far more than the amount of reimbursement she is debating, she is concerned the ruling by commissioners will set a precedent and the county could find itself defending the actions in court.
“What they did is they opened the checkbook to the general fund, and now anyone can come for a refund, and we’ll be broke,” Horn said. “They can come in for a refund for no reason, and it will be discriminatory if they say no to the next guy.”
Hermacinski doesn’t agree. She told Complete Colorado there are only a handful of cases where this happens, and she said the issue would have never made itself to the board had Horn just sent a notice of fees due.
“I think it’s a very clear line,” Hermacinski said. “If you haven’t received a written notice from your government that you owe additional money — I know we are all supposed to know what our yearly tax bill is without written notice from the government. But if the government discovers something else and you owe additional money, and we the government don’t notify the tax payers, I think that happens so rarely.”
The issue began in March of 2018 when Christy Belton, a land consultant with the Realtors Land Institute in Colorado and real estate broker, contacted the assessor’s office representing Lew Allyn, owner of Mystic Canyon Ranch, LLC in a tax abatement petition.
Belton alleged that the assessor and the treasurer failed to notify Allyn of additional interest charges on two outbuildings on the ranch that had gone unnoticed for tax years 2015 and 2016. When the buildings were assessed, the interest charges were allowed by law.
Belton argued Allyn never received notification of the interest and therefore he should not be responsible for the $522.98 bill. The Ranch in question is worth nearly $8 million. It was purchase by Allyn through Belton in 2016.
Horn said Colorado law does not require property owners to be notified with a separate bill via mail of the interest charges. She said Routt County Commissioners spent millions of dollars putting everything online so that residents could access their bills 24 hours a day.
Horn’s term of office is up at the end of 2018.
According to minutes from the Sept. 11 hearing Commissioner Hermacinski, who is running for re-election, noted this is about being reassessed and that “even the most diligent of citizens does not check the Routt County website to see if their property has been reassessed, therefore it is up to the County to notify the citizens when they owe money.”
Hermacinski, an attorney herself, called for vote on the matter, saying because Horn brought her attorney, it was “becoming a very expensive meeting for the tax payers.” She moved to deny the abatement, she said, because she recognized they couldn’t legally abate the taxes, but immediately moved to reimburse Allyn the $523 out of the general fund, citing the discretionary ability of the board to spend general fund money as it sees fit.
“I’m trying to save the county from their egregious behavior,” Horn said. “Now anyone can come before the board and say, ‘I want my interest back,’ and get it.”
Hermacinski said there are only a handful of situations where this occurs, and she’s more frustrated by the cost of the attorney the board hired to represent Horn in the case, saying to date it’s about $12,000 for a $523 bill.
Horn pointed out that Belton has both donated to and helped with Hermacinski’s campaign.
According to the Secretary of State’s website. Belton has donated $200 to Hermacinski and has also appeared in ads for Hermacinski. Belton also donated $100 to Horn’s run for state treasurer.
Hermacinski said she does not believe campaign contributions are conflicts of interests. Courts have ruled in that favor several times.
There is a hearing scheduled for 8:15 a.m. on Nov. 7 in Routt County District Court.
Horn said she will fight it based on the principal, and she just wants a judge to decide for future instances.
“That’s the bigger thing,” Horn said. “If we’re not going to follow the laws then let’s not have them. It’s about doing what’s right. I’m a fiscal conservative. I don’t want to spend a dollar, but they played my hand. They forced my hand.”