ARAPAHOE COUNTY — While property owners across the state are facing a looming jump in property taxes as high as 40 percent or more, Arapahoe County residents are likely to see a ballot initiative that would deliver yet another hit to their wallets by way of their Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) refunds.
Arapahoe County Commissioners appear likely to place some form of a de-TABOR question on the 2023 ballot asking if the county can keep all taxes collected, foregoing the refund of excess revenue. Commissioners claim a severe deficit in funds to keep up with the growth of the county and threaten a reduction in services if the increased revenue is not granted.
“The County has significant infrastructure, public safety and general service needs, and funding has not kept pace with inflation or community expectations,” the five commissioners wrote in an editorial published in the Villager newspaper. “The stark reality is that without new sources of revenue, the Board will be forced to eliminate or reduce (vital) county services.”
Although the commissioners have not officially introduced a measure to refer to voters, they have discussed the matter in three separate executive sessions, according to minutes of the three separate meetings.
Natalie Menten, a long-time political activist from Lakewood who was instrumental in defeating two different Jefferson County de-TABOR ballot initiatives and who is a TABOR Foundation board director, said in a recent interview with Brandon Wark from Free State Colorado, that there is time to stop what’s happening in Arapahoe.
“They have an upcoming town hall,” Menten said. “They will want to control those conversations with canned presentations and polls,” she continued, encouraging Arapahoe County residents to “stack that telephone town hall with calls.”
Menten pointed out that despite officials saying there has not been a tax increase in 20 years, TABOR allows for the county to keep more revenue as inflation and local growth increase.
Counties still governed under TABOR
Arapahoe commissioners also claimed that neighboring counties “that have (voted to end TABOR requirements) and have additional funding sources such as sales taxes have been better able to keep pace with necessary capital improvements, growth, and expenses.”
However, a look into other counties still fully under TABOR shows a different picture — including some of the largest counties in the state such as Jefferson, El Paso, and Weld counties.
According to the Denver Post, neighboring Jefferson County refunded more than $17 million to taxpayers in 2022 and will refund nearly $40 million this year because voters have opted twice not to remove their taxpayer protections
The same Denver Post article uses El Paso County as an example of a large “tax adverse” conservative county that has de-TABORed to support Arapahoe’s arguments that it is getting harder to pay the bills under TABOR. However, according to El Paso County Executive Director of Communications, Vernon Stewart, El Paso has not de-TABORed and is still governed under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. In fact, El Paso residents earlier this year received TABOR refund checks totaling nearly $31 million.
According to the Bell Policy Center, also on that list of counties in the area that have not “de-TABORed” are Elbert, Broomfield, Park and Weld.
Perhaps one of the biggest examples of a county succeeding while still under TABOR is Weld, which remains both debt-free and sales tax-free, and over the past 12 years, has returned more than $1 billion in property tax dollars back to its constituents.
Spending one-time money
Arapahoe commissioners say that they spent one-time emergency funding from the American Rescue Plan Act on piloting a homeless program and now don’t have the money to continue it. Former Arapahoe County Commissioner and current state legislator Rod Bockenfeld said that type of spending is the problem. In a counter argument to the Villager, Bockenfeld said TABOR has served Colorado and Arapahoe County well for over thirty years.
“Establishing an adequate governmental budget is all about setting the correct priorities,” Bockenfeld said, also calling into question why Arapahoe commissioners eliminated a citizen’s budget committee that had been in place for decades.
“Many citizens are already concerned about their high property assessment values,” Bockenfeld said. “Many senior citizens are wondering if they can afford their homes going forward. Many young people are wondering if they can afford rent on their apartments going forward.”
Bockenfeld said he was proud to leave the commission in 2016 with the county in good financial condition.
“We had a rule of thumb – when our citizens’ personal budgets are being squeezed and they are hurting don’t pile on by raising taxes,” he said encouraging residents to contact the Arapahoe County Commissioners and ask them to reconsider the idea. “Voters are currently being manipulated by the state’s Proposition HH ballot language. (Commissioners) want to create some crafty ballot language of their own. That’s what I call “piling on.”
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