Tuesday morning El Paso County Commissioners meeting – tax increase on the way?

El Paso County residents were invited to attend two public hearings regarding a TABOR referendum. The first meeting took place August 17th, with the second slated to occur on Tuesday, August 24th at 9am at the Board of County Commissioners meeting (200 South Cascade Ave., Colorado Springs, CO).

TABOR, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, requires voter approval for any tax increases or new taxes. TABOR also limits the growth of revenue for any local governments based upon the rate of regional inflation. Most importantly, TABOR stipulates that any funds collected in excess of the pre-determined limits be returned to the taxpayer.

As Savvy Wolfson, a Routt County activist, articulated in July, “Coloradans recently voted to keep our Taxpayers Bill of Rights intact by a significant margin of 10%. Overturning it would be undemocratic.” Indeed, overturning TABOR would be undemocratic. Voters have not indicated, overall, that they wish to do so. After all, who doesn’t love an amendment that limits government spending? New Yorkers could only dream of such a concept. But El Paso County commissioners may ask voters to do just that by raising the amount of money the county is allowed to keep based on the last years’ revenue overages created in part by CARES funding.

El Paso County has raised $22.1 million above TABOR limits during 2020 and 2021, with a $7 million excess in 2020. The county wants to keep $15 million for “roads and park projects.” According to the county, it’s backlogged with infrastructure problems and needs a $15 million bailout.

In order to accomplish this task, El Paso County commissioners are considering a November ballot question that would raise the base for tax revenue by $7 million, which is the excess. If voters allow the $7 million increase for 2022, population growth, the rate of inflation, plus an additional 1% will be added onto the $7 million base raise, per the TABOR formula…permanently.

I spoke with Penn Pfiffner, a former state representative and board member at the TABOR Foundation, about the legality and intent of El Paso County’s proposed increase. Pfiffner believes the spirit of TABOR is to limit unnecessary spending unless and until the government absolutely needs your tax dollars. Since Colorado received over $2 billion in COVID relief funding, the timing of this increase may leave taxpayers feeling uneasy.

El Paso County will receive $70 million in federal COVID relief before the end of 2024…money that, as Pfiffner puts it, will be spent slowly due to a shortage of critical workers in the infrastructure and roads sectors. Regardless, it’s a lot of money, and some or all of the money needed to repair El Paso County’s roads should come from COVID-19 relief funding rather than the taxpayers.

If the commissioners cannot find enough road dollars in CARES funding, there are other areas where financial bleeding could be stopped. Commissioners could look here, where the county spent $45,000 to take county employees to the zoo…or here, where Commissioners spent $500,000 to give county employees discounted tickets to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum. Just a quick glance at county finances reveals that $545,000 alone could be saved by not indulging El Paso County employees with discounts and gifts. There are other clear examples of unnecessary spending on El Paso County’s books, including $328,000 to repair and prevent vandalism at the Painted Mines.

El Paso County Commissioners will hear public comments Tuesday morning at 9am. According to local sources, the Commissioners are somewhat split on a vote about keeping taxpayer dollars or refunding them to the taxpayers. Commissioners Carri Geitner and Longinos Gonzales remain steadfast in their commitment to preserve TABOR by returning funds to the people who worked for the money.

Commissioners Stan VanderWerf and Holly Williams are expected to vote for a November referendum which asks voters for permission to keep excess funds via raising the TABOR base by $7 million plus the applicable 1%, inflation, and population growth…permanently.

At first glance, the assertion that asking the taxpayers for their permission to spend the excess revenue seems to align with taxpayer rights and the freedom of people to choose how their money is spent. However, a deeper look at TABOR reveals that even if the voters of El Paso County choose to let the county “keep” their excess tax dollars, raising the limits of TABOR for El Paso County leads to permanent increased spending by the county.

Such an increase levied at a time of high extra revenue due to CARES, as demonstrated by the TABOR formula, could lead to staggering amounts of extra tax dollars raised…the number could drift into the tens of millions of dollars rather quickly.

TABOR is one of Colorado’s only protections against government overreach, and it’s known as the gold standard of spending limits despite twenty-eight other states placing some type of monetary constraints on elected boards.

The Tuesday meeting will be live-streamed, but those who wish to testify must be present in person Tuesday morning, August 24th, at the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners meeting at 9am at 200 South Cascade Avenue in Colorado Springs.

El Paso County residents who wish to keep their money, maximize federal funding, and hold officials accountable for over-spending should show up in person to voice their opinions. Doing so could just prevent years of El Paso County spending too much of your money.

~Darcy Schoening

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Reginald Hafner

No tax increases period.

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