Jefferson County has been doing us a favor. For 18 years, the county has been collecting less property tax money from residents than it could have. This was largely a preemptive move to ensure the …
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Jefferson County has been doing us a favor.
For 18 years, the county has been collecting less property tax money from residents than it could have. This was largely a preemptive move to ensure the county complied with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). Thanks to a good economy, Jeffco’s leaders have chosen to lower those tax bills, instead of wasting the staff’s time and lots of postage to send us all smallish checks year after year.
This purposeful restraint on the county’s part is no longer sustainable. For many years now, the county has been dipping into savings to make up the difference. Now, that well has run dry. For 2020, the county estimates a $16.1 million shortfall in just trying to maintain the services and staff it currently has.
The county, particularly Sheriff Jeff Shrader, says that level of budget cutbacks would be disastrous for all of Jeffco, affecting our safety and security. Shrader says the cuts would force the closure of part of the jail and force him to release people from custody whom he does not want running free.
Jeffco’s Ballot Issue 1A is the county’s proposed solution. It doesn’t add new taxes, but it would allow the county to take the full tax amount it would have been able to collect if not for TABOR’s revenue limits.
This raising of revenue limits on property tax is not permanent, sunsetting in seven years. It also does not mean the county will automatically take the full amount it is allowed to. In the first year the county will only take half of its missing share, enough to cover that $16.1 million.
Beyond 2020 the county says the extra funding, estimated at about $32 million, will go primarily toward public safety needs, including the sheriff’s office, the DA’s office and the road and bridge department.
Critics say this request is only happening now because Democrats have a 2-1 voting majority in the county for the first time in a long time. Undercutting this argument is the fact that Republican county commissioner Libby Szabo voted to put 1A on the ballot. Szabo’s pro-business conservative bona fides are strong, so her vote, when she could have easily ducked the issue and let her two Democratic county commission colleagues carry forward, speaks volumes. The county sheriff and DA, both Republicans, say it is needed. The leadership board of Jeffco GOP opted not to come out in opposition to the measure either.
Are the ballot measure proponents leaning hard on the issues of public safety and roads, instead of the less-universally supported functions of Jeffco government, like human services, building code inspections and administrative office re-carpeting? Sure, but squeezing $16.1 million out of the county ensures the pain will legitimately hit across the board. We believe county government has been largely frugal and responsible with our money — there is not $16.1 million in frivolous bloat in this budget that could be trimmed without hurting the systems and services that many of us rely upon.
We like that 1A sunsets in seven years, something we think should have been added to the state’s Proposition CC. Though, critics are right to highlight that Jeffco 1A will permanently remove the TABOR limits on the county’s grant and fee revenue. This will be something to watch closely, to ensure it isn’t abused by future county commissioners, who may try to ratchet up fees on us. To date though, the county’s track record is positive. The Planning Department’s current policy is to never charge more than 25% of its actual costs in fees.
Another thing to watch if Jeffco 1A passes, is to see if some of that traditional Jeffco fiscal restraint is kept. The county commissioners say they will may not need to take the entire, estimated $32 million in extra revenue in 2021 and beyond if it isn’t needed. We would be pleasantly surprised if Jeffco did leave that money on the table, but only time will tell.
If the worst were to come to pass, that fees are punitively raised, and the commissioners spend every extra penny we give them in less-than-wise ways, then we’ll have the option to course correct, by voting in a new board majority in 2020.
That additional money will come out of our pockets. For most homeowners, it will only amount to a few extra dollars a month. For businesses, however, the hit will be four times greater. Those costs will naturally trickle down into the rents of our favorite businesses, and through them, into the prices we pay for goods and services. But again, this is money that we would already be paying in most counties. Only now that the county is down to the bare minimum in its savings account, does it ask for this TABOR reprieve.
Any loosening of TABOR by us, the voters, indicates a level of trust in our elected officials and government. In abiding by the restrictions of TABOR this long, far longer than virtually every county in the state, and by structuring 1A to include a sunset, we believe that Jeffco has earned enough trust to warrant a yes vote.
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