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County faces grim future

El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen held a town hall meeting Sept. 9 concerning the county’s recent reorganization, which reduced 13 departments to four in response to a $9.1 million revenue deficit.County Administrator Jeff Greene provided an overview of the four departments – support services, community services, budget administration and public services. Each department head fielded questions.”We are going to have to do less with less,” Greene said. “The county may not be able to provide those services you and I have come to depend on.”Greene described problems with the county’s fleet of vehicles, including snowplows.”Last week, I received a report that 47 percent of the county’s fleet is down,” he said. “In certain areas of the county, roads are not going to get plowed. You are not going to be able to leave your home.” Andre Brackin, head of the county’s transportation department, said his department is prioritizing roads that will be plowed.Greene said he has asked the department to devise a plan to start replacing old vehicles that cost too much to maintain.Today’s fleet problems are, in part, the result of a failed attempt – a few years ago – to get voter approval on the expansion of the criminal justice center, he said. The county was forced to issue certificates of participation, which left no money to fund the fleet at an acceptable level, Greene said.”It really disappoints me that we’re at this point,” he said. “The Gallagher and TABOR amendments have hurt this county.”Discussion turned to the 1 percent sales tax increase, scheduled on the ballot in November, and property taxes and the mill levy used to calculate property taxes.Few people know about the 1913 mill levy law, which only allows property tax revenues to grow by 5.5 percent every year, Greene said.In 1987, voters approved a measure to increase the sales tax by 1 percent and reduce the mill levy on properties, Greene said.”At that time, property tax was 60 percent of the county’s tax revenue and sales tax was 40 percent,” he said. “Since then, the ratio has flipped; 63 percent comes from sales tax and 37 percent comes from property tax.”Reducing the mill levy as long as property assessments are increasing is fine,” Greene said. But now, assessments are going down, but the mill levy can’t go up, so the amount of property tax the county receives decreases, he added. “That’s the reason the county has become dependent on sales tax.””I’ve been in this office for seven years,” said Nicola Sapp, the county’s budget director. “Seven years ago, I was before the commissioners, forecasting that we would have the problem we have today.”While the intent was good, the actual application of TABOR and Gallagher has been detrimental to local governments, Sapp said.”The revenue situation is very real. Either we continue serious reductions or there is some form of revenue increase,” she said. “We’ve known it would happen for close to a decade. We have been speaking about it, but it has not been publicized in the press.”Unfunded state and federal mandates are part of the problem. Sapp said the state allocated new judges to El Paso County because of the county’s increased caseload.On average, every new judge costs the county $1 million in additional district attorneys, support staff and support staff for the sheriff’s office. “That’s an unfunded mandate,” she said.Sapp said property tax revenue is more reliable than sales tax revenue, which is directly tied to the economy.An audience member asked why the county is pursuing a sales tax increase instead of a mill levy increase.”We polled people,” said Stephannie Finley, who represented the citizens’ group that could not find any fat in the budget after studying it for 18 months. “The philosophy of the voters in this county does not bode well for a property tax [increase]. Seventy-nine percent of the people told us no, don’t even go there.””The people of this county will not approve a property tax increase,” Lathen said.The mill levy would have to triple to achieve the same amount of revenue expected by the 1 percent sales tax increase, she said, and that “would never happen in this county.””A lot of people feel that a sales tax initiative is more fair because you capture tourism dollars. You can somewhat control the impact of the sales tax to you personally by not purchasing as many things,” Lathen said.”A lot of people in this county don’t own property, so a property tax increase would force the burden on those who do own property,” Finley said.Greene said the issue of low property taxes would have to be dealt with some day.”A sales tax is a consumption tax. It’s the most fair tax because everybody participates in the process,” he said. “You’re not just burdening a small percentage of the population, which is the property owners and businesses.”What’s happened with Gallagher is you’ve transferred responsibility from the residents to businesses. Why is Colorado Springs not as competitive economically? Because you put the burden on businesses to pay.””Why aren’t we willing to invest in our community?” asked one audience member.Lathen answered, “Any time you even blink about taxes, you immediately get labeled. I have stood up on the third rail of politics in this county and jumped up and down and said the county does need more money.”I didn’t come on this board with an agenda to try to scare you into giving me more money. I don’t have any pet projects. We are working to provide services that are constitutionally mandated to us and that you are asking for.”I think it’s right for you to have these choices in front of you. Either you agree that we’re not a bunch of corrupt, horrible individuals or you don’t and you say no. It’s fair to give you the facts and you make that decision.”By Sept. 29, the county will provide detailed information that shows how the additional money will be allocated if voters pass the 1 percent sales tax increase, Lathen said.A town hall meeting with all the commissioners in attendance will be held Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Colorado Springs Regional Building Department in Colorado Springs, Lathen said.Lathen also is holding a town hall meeting at the Stetson Hills Police Department on Saturday, Oct. 4.

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