Refund checks for the overpayment of 2022 property started hitting the mailboxes of Jefferson County residents just this week. Better late than never, I suppose. Included with the checks is a propaganda letter from the county whining about all the services they’d sure love to provide, but can’t because of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). What the letter doesn’t mention is that county commissioners spent around a quarter million tax dollars to mail out the checks rather than simply lowering property taxes (more on that later).
One Edgewater resident reports receiving $98.27, while a taxpayer in Arvada got $101.48. My own refund is $81.89. Admittedly, it’s nice to get a rebate or refund check in the mail from the government. Even better is not overpaying the government in the first place.
TABOR benefits us locally
Thanks to our constitutional Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) in Colorado we have protection from runaway government growth. TABOR allows moderate growth, while keeping excesses in check. The state gets to keep taxes capped by inflation percentage and population growth. Revenue over collected must be returned to tax payers unless voters approve giving up their refunds, like the case of Proposition HH.
TABOR also includes taxpayer safeguards at the local government level, which encompasses over 2,800 municipalities, special districts, school districts, and the counties. TABOR has a slightly different formula for local governments allowing tax revenue increase by inflation rate plus local growth (construction or school enrollment).
TABOR isn’t the only taxpayer protection in Colorado. We also have the 5.5% Annual Levy Law written in Colorado Revised Statutes 29-1-301. The law was written in 1913, making it 110 years older than our Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. The law restricts the amount of total property tax revenue that a local government may collect each year. Unfortunately, those taxpayer protections don’t extend to all governments like TABOR does. Home rule jurisdictions, a common classification for many cities in Colorado, aren’t included in the property tax cap.
Sadly, many voters have been tricked into giving up some of their local TABOR rights and/or the Annual Levy Law protections when they voted for ballot issues. The usual suspect ballot language, written by government bodies, is something like “allow government to spend and retain all revenue notwithstanding Art. X, Section 20 or any other law.” Poof! With that vague and misleading language, voters gave up their rights forever, though it’s verifiable that TABOR was never meant to allow permanently giving up rights, instead limiting those actions to four years.
Not all voters have forfeited their taxpayer protections under TABOR or the Annual Levy Law, including Jefferson County. In Jeffco, the county commissioners have twice over the last four years tried to persuade voters to give up their property tax caps and voters wisely declined in both cases.
Even with shenanigans from the proponents, voters understood what was at stake.
The county took up a new practice in 2021 of sending our property tax refunds by mail, instead of reducing the mill levy like other counties. The reason is that they get to use around a quarter-million dollars of our tax money so they can insert a political persuasion letter.
The letter sent with the checks this time around has actually gotten worse than prior versions. For example, the letter claims the county has “reduced or eliminated services and programs,” but doesn’t mention that Jeffco has continued to add new employees and additional programs while brushing aside core functions. The county complains they will likely have to issue another TABOR refund next year, as if that’s a bad thing.
The commissioners claim bringing in less revenue during Covid, but don’t list the $165 million dollars the county received in CARES and ARPA funding.
Commissioners are actually planning on presenting another tax hike question in 2024, so any juice they can get out of this letter is important in their tax grab scheme. So much so that the commissioners in August put out a request for proposal (RFP) to hire a political consultant to have at their disposal and direction between now and next July, right up until the “potential” ballot measure would officially be placed on the ballot. Last time the commissioners did this was in 2019, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars to be essentially lobbied by their own county government.
Shaun Boyd, political reporter with CBS4, took up this story to ask the county why they chose to spend a lot of taxpayer money to send a politically motivated letter with the refund instead of lowering the mill levy. Additionally, she delved into the topic of hiring a political consultant using the taxpayers’ wallets.
County Commissioner Andy Kerr, who openly admits he wants to eliminate TABOR entirely, responded that the county wants to hire a political consultant on the taxpayer dime to make sure that the public has ‘accurate’ information, as in the decidedly anti-TABOR letter included with the refund checks.
Just lower the mill already
Continuing to waste the taxpayers’ money is already bad enough. Hiring the political consultant, and even contemplating another ballot issue in 2024 is disgusting. County commissioners have the opportunity to lower the mill in November when they set the property tax rate for the January 2024 billing. If they ignore that opportunity and duty, they are holding our TABOR refunds hostage until one year from now. They are creating hardship by taking more from taxpayers than they should.
Stop the games already and lower the mill levy rate at the November 14 proposed budget and mill levy certification meeting.
Natalie Menten has been an activist in Jefferson County for over 20 years focusing on state and local public policy. She is a former elected RTD boardmember and sits on the board of directors for the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights Foundation. Contact Natalie at Coloradoengaged@gmail.com.
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