GOLDEN — Just three years after Jefferson County (Jeffco) voters soundly rejected the idea of allowing the county to keep and spend over-collected revenue and eliminate fiscal restraints in place under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), the county government is giving it another go.
Commissioners recently referred to the November ballot yet another attempt to override constitutional revenue restrictions, as well as two new money generating marijuana measures with TABOR exemptions already built in.
TABOR is a constitutional amendment that, among other things, regulates the growth of local government spending to a reasonable annual rate, currently 3.9% for Jeffco. Excess revenue must be returned to taxpayers unless voters give permission to exceed those limits.
In 2019, Jeffco asked voters to allow the government to keep all revenue it collected, including property taxes, through 2027 and then just non property-tax revenue after that. At that time, county staff said the county would face a $16 million shortfall in 2020.
In July, commissioners referred Issue 1A to the November ballot, which asks voters to permanently exempt all non-property tax revenue from the TABOR revenue limits. That would include revenue the county receives in the way of state grants, user fees, highways or tax funds and interest revenue, among other sources.
Exceeding the revenue limit
Kate Newman, acting county manager, told commissioners that passage of 1A would not solve Jefferson County’s financial problems, but it would allow staff to “actively apply for state grants and retain non-property tax dollars once we have reached our revenue limit.”
Newman added that once Jeffco reaches its TABOR limit, the county is unable to apply for those grants, or if a grant is applied for and received and that grant pushed the county over its TABOR limit, more property tax revenue would have to be returned to taxpayers to remain below the limit.
Newman claims some examples of non-property tax revenue that has tipped the county over its TABOR limit includes grants for wildfire mitigation, body cameras for the sheriff’s office and community corrections contracts, as well as other human services and housing programs.
User fee examples were the highway users tax fund and development review fees.
With TABOR limits lifted, the county claims it could apply for and retain an unlimited number of state grants, and increase or create new user fees without impacting the TABOR limit on property taxes.
The county can apply for and accept unlimited grants from the federal government, as they are exempt from TABOR.
Jeffco has yet to publish what the fiscal impact is if 1A passes.
Questioning the need
Natalie Menten, a longtime political activist from Lakewood, told Complete Colorado, she wonders if the commissioners have purposefully omitted information as to how much federal money has flowed into the county during COVID in order to justify the the ballot measure.
“They got millions in federal COVID money, a large part of which is only being spent now and that certainly wasn’t highlighted in their ballot issue listening tour,” Menten said.
Menten also noted at a July 19 hearing that there is a four-year limit in the state Constitution for how long TABOR limits can be lifted without asking permission again, and questioned the county’s grant accounting.
Menten said she also fears this initiative could lead to the county implementing brand new fees such as a 911 emergency charge, increasing building fees, stormwater fees, or affordable housing impact fees. The list is endless, she said.
“Ballot Issue 1A is a tax hike because we won’t get the same refund amount that we would as now when the county revenue exceeds the cap,” Menten said. “That higher tax is going to be reflected on the property tax bill, which affects homeowners, renters, and businesses. This is just not the time to do this. The county under the existing TABOR cap is allowed to increase revenue 3.9% over last year and that’s plenty. There is no reason to allow this tax increase and permanently waive part of our TABOR rights in Jeffco.”
In addition to exempting all non-property tax revenue, commissioners also referred two other measures to the ballot that have TABOR implications.
- Ballot issue 1B would authorize manufacturing and retail sales of marijuana. It would also allow the county to “retain and spend all application, licensing, renewal fees, and enforcement costs” beyond the limitations of TABOR.
- Ballot issue 1C would impose a sales tax on marijuana beginning at 3 percent. The tax would fund public safety operations and expected to raise about $600,000 annually, which would also be exempt from TABOR limits. The commission could raise the sales tax up to 6 percent without future voter approval.
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