Featured, Legal, Local, TABOR, Taxes, Uncategorized

Martinez: Court sends a reminder; tax hikes require voter consent

In a major victory for taxpayers, a unanimous panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed with the National Taxpayers Union Foundation’s Taxpayer Defense Center (NTUF) that an overnight doubling of the property taxes in a few Northern Colorado counties violated the Colorado Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR).

We represented James Aranci and his neighbors, who were shocked to learn in 2020 that their property taxes to the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District doubled from 2019 to 2020 (and the years thereafter). TABOR mandates a ratification vote of any proposed tax increase or new debt taken on by government entities–including water districts. But there was no vote from Aranci or anyone else. So we came to help in their challenge to this unconstitutional tax increase.

The court held in this case that the doubling of the rate increased the tax revenue to the water district, and thus there should have been a TABOR vote.  The court read the relevant case law in the same way as we did, holding that Huber v. Colorado Mining Association–which was about a ministerial tax adjustment based on inflation–did not apply here, where the water district had a lot of options for balancing its budget.

The court also rejected the water district’s theory that a 1996 ballot measure waived any right to vote on future tax increases, as the measure expressly stated “that no local tax rate or property mill levy shall be increased at any time without the prior approval of the voters of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District.”

And, finally, the court rejected the water district’s assertion that the sky will fall if they can’t avoid a TABOR vote and double the rates overnight. TABOR simply requires the government to ask permission if it wants more tax money. Various government entities—schools, libraries, fire departments, etc.—routinely ask for more money and get it because the taxpayers agree it is worth the investment. If the water district thinks it needs more funds, it needs to ask.

As for next steps in the case, the unanimous panel of judges reversed the holdings of the District Court and remanded the case back for further proceedings on (1) the question of class certification so that all property owners can get their money refunded  and (2) attorneys’ fees. This is expected and routine to have the trial court handle such matters.

The case is Aranci v. Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District (2024 COA 28).

Tyler Martinez graduated law school at the University of Colorado and is a senior attorney at NTUF.  A version of this article originally appeared at the NTUF website.


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