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El Paso County Colorado District 49

County revenue deficit a challenge

Every election year we are presented with candidates and issues, as well as the accompanying myths and rhetoric. This year looks to be a banner year in terms of the number of issues and candidates you will have the privilege to consider. This is a fundamental process outlined in our Constitution, and I find it exhilarating to debate the issues of the day and work to make the cream rise to the top.The myths and rhetoric are an unpleasant byproduct of the process, and so I’d like to discuss one of the ballot measures – the 1 cent sales tax increase proposed in ballot issue 1A. Talking about government revenue is politically charged, but as a member of the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners, which is responsible for the allocation of your county tax dollars, it is my responsibility to provide information to you regardless of the political ramifications.On Aug. 28, the BoCC was asked to place measure 1A on the ballot by a local citizens’ group. There is no route to the countywide ballot but through the BoCC, and we had to decide whether or not to place this measure on the ballot. There was much debate and Commissioner Jim Bensberg offered an alternative half-cent proposal.While I believe strongly in the peoples’ right to choose items such as described under TABOR, I also believe that the BoCC may be a filter for items that are not necessarily right for the ballot. I voted to place the half-cent sales tax measure on the ballot for the people to decide. It failed. This proposal addressed specific needs, which exist today within the sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office, coroner’s office and health department. With the lowest mill levy in the state and constant increases in the cost of services – fuel, asphalt, technology, etc. – many agree we have a revenue deficiency here in El Paso County. What some are not sure of is why we wouldn’t cut more spending to address this issue. Since joining the board in January, I have been looking for those cuts, and we have made several. In June, we made $4.1 million in cuts. The total budgets for 2007, 2008 and 2009 are respectively: $246 million, $235 million and $228 million. The budgets are getting smaller as our population increases.Cutting the size and scope of government is almost always the right choice; however, in this case any cuts that are not mandated spending requirements would not provide the necessary funding to build a vital maximum-security pod at our criminal justice center. Funding is also needed for ongoing operations of the facility and additional patrol and detention deputies. Available cuts are not sufficient to address the mandates we are receiving from the state of Colorado to provide courtrooms and personnel for two new district court judges and one more county court judge. Available cuts will not build a new coroner’s office, now bursting at the seams since being built in 1988. The county does not have the outrageous “nanny-state” government programs like those that exist at the state and federal levels, sucking the cash out of your wallets and mine. There is very little discretionary funding left to cut. Parks and CSU Extension are two examples of discretionary funding we have, and those two combined are budgeted at $584,000 for 2009.Ballot issue 1A addresses these public safety issues. But, this measure includes a municipal-share-back piece in which all eight of the municipalities within the county would share a portion of the revenue raised by the tax. I voted not to place this measure on the ballot because as a county official I don’t believe that I have the authority, nor would it be responsible, for me to ask voters to consider an increase for municipal governments over which I have no control and whose budgets you have not hired me to represent.The two measures would net El Paso County about the same amount of revenue. They both exempt fuel, groceries and prescriptions from the additional tax. They both propose pay-as-you-go financing on the capital projects. The main difference in the two is the municipal-share-back piece. Regardless of their differences, the needs within the county remain the same. Voters will have to decide whether a) you agree that there is a revenue deficiency in El Paso County; b) you believe we are allocating current funds responsibly; and c) you believe the approach should be regional, including all of our municipalities, in sharing the revenue generated by this measure.Most of those who say we’re making this up and using scare tactics are the ones who have publicly admitted they’ve never even looked at our county budget. Their claims are disingenuous to you and to our public safety service providers who are working hard with limited resources.The choice is yours, and I ask every El Paso County voter to take time to review the county’s two proposed budgets at www.elpasoco.com, as well as visit the criminal justice center, the district attorney’s office or the coroner’s office. Search the line items, look at the mandates, question the services provided and make a decision based on the facts.Amy LathenEl Paso County Commissioner, District 2520-6412

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