JEFFERSON COUNTY, COLO–A position paper released October 15 from the Centennial Institute, a think tank attached to Colorado Christian University, says that among other faults, Jefferson County’s Ballot Issue 1A contains a “hidden $350 million-dollar property tax increase during the next ten years.”
Jefferson County claims it is facing a $16.1 million shortfall in 2020 that will require 7% across-the-board cuts to county departments, including the Sheriff’s Office. The ballot language says one of the potential uses of the funds includes, “Providing for the safety of the public including maintaining adequate jail beds…adequate patrol personnel and wildfire mitigation.”
The Institute’s Law and Politics Fellow, Frank Francone, authored a 15-page position paper detailing what he considers flaws in the ballot issue that he says would:
• Eliminate all Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) protections against excessive spending for property tax revenues for seven years, from 2020 through 2026;
• Greatly increase the TABOR excessive spending limits for property tax revenues collected after 2026;
• Eliminate, in perpetuity, all TABOR protections against excessive spending for revenue sources other than property taxes;
• Authorize an 18% increase in the county property tax mill levy that will be assessed on Jefferson County homeowners and businesses from the year 2020 on; and
• Provide no guarantee that the monies raised will be spent on jails.
Francone cited Jefferson County spending and budget records as well as statements made by county officials.
One of the most contentious claims made by the county is that if the ballot issue fails, funding for the Sheriff’s Office would have to be cut and parts of the county jail would be emptied and shut down.
“Up until July 23, 2019, Jeffco budget officials stated that they would make drastic cuts to the sheriff’s budget from 2019 to 2020,” says Francone. “But starting on August 6, 2019, the Jefferson County Budget Manager, Strategic Planning and Analysis Division, Dan Conway, has twice retracted these cuts in two proposed budget documents presented to the Board of County Commissioners.”
Francone criticizes Jefferson County for lax fiscal management and overspending as compared to surrounding counties.
“Jefferson County’s total expenditures have grown by 23.3% over the past five years,” Francone says. “During the same five-year period, adjacent suburban counties, Douglas and Arapahoe, increased their spending by only 16% and 19% respectively.”
Francone then explains that Jefferson County was able to spend much more than the TABOR spending growth limit in past years by drawing down its reserve funds, which doesn’t count under the TABOR limit.
“The withdrawals from reserves to cover Jeffco’s increased spending over the past five years appear to have been over $81 million,” says Francone. “This exceeds population growth, inflation, and TABOR computed growth of the county’s economy.”
“Had Jeffco not drawn down its reserves, its growth rate from 2015 to 2019 would have been in line with its more restrained neighboring suburban counties,” Fancone continues.
Douglas and Arapahoe counties contained average yearly spending growth to about 3.5% per year, while Jeffco’s rate of growth was 4.7% per year on average.
Jefferson County says in 2019-2020 the county is limited by TABOR to 3.9% but needs a 5.3% boost to avoid drastic budget cuts.
Francone says the budget crisis is artificial and that not giving the county a blank check would merely slow the rate of spending growth for about a year, adding that he thinks that the county’s plea for more money doesn’t make sense.
“An increase of only 3.9% will, according to the county, force budget cuts of 7% across all departments,” says Francone. “On their face, these numbers make no sense. How can a 3.9% increase in spending authority cause 7% across the board cuts?”
“Had Jeffco followed the more fiscally responsible example of its suburban neighbors,” says Francone “Jeffco’s spending would have been about $28.3 million less in 2019 – that alone would cover the entire $16.1 million shortfalls Jeffco claims in 2020 and most of the $32 million Jeffco claims it needs in subsequent years.”
But spending is only part of the language on the ballot. Another provision allows the county to raise the property tax mill levy without having to put it to a public vote. Francone says the language is technically correct, but misleading.
“The reason it is misleading is that the actual county mill levy is NOT the “current authorized maximum county mill levy of 21.478”,” says Francone. “The actual mill levy assessed by the county today is 18.239.”
“Obviously, if Ballot Issue 1A passes, spending protections for property tax revenues are gone for seven years and hugely increased after that,” Francone continues. “Thus, there would no longer be any reason for the commissioners not to increase the mill levy to the “maximum authorized” mill levy. In fact, the commissioners indicated at a July 16 staff briefing, their intention to raise the mill levy to the maximum authorized level.”
The result, should Issue 1A pass, Francone says, is a $350 million property tax increase over ten years.