3D trial continues | VailDaily.com

3D trial continues

Veronica Whitney

Eagle County District Court Judge Richard Hart said Tuesday he expects to make a decision after hearing testimony today.

“Otherwise my decision could take a long time. At this point it’s all up in the air,” Hart said.

The trial started almost a year after Edwards resident and local publisher Michael Cacioppo filed a lawsuit against the Eagle County School District alleging the ballot language contained in Question 3D – which increased funding for the Eagle County School District by $3.1 million annually – violated the terms of Colorado’s Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, commonly known as TABOR.

TABOR strictly regulates any tax increases and calls out specific language for ballot questions.

Although the school district has been collecting 3D money since it was enacted more than a year ago, the teachers’ raises are tied up pending the resolution of the case.

“We’re here because we don’t trust the government,” said Carol Curtis, Cacioppo’s attorney. “The school district has misled county residents.”

Cacioppo’s lawsuit claims the district’s TABOR notice contained falsified dollar amounts and growth percentages and that the ballot language was false and misleading.

Curtis took all day presenting her case and questioning witnesses, including three former school board members who had approved the ballot language.

On the defense part, Richard Lyons and Adele Reester, attorneys for the school district, spent most of the day objecting to Curtis’ questions, saying they weren’t relevant to TABOR.

“Our argument is a Constitutional one,” Curtis said, “and that is the essence of our case.”

Cacioppo’s lawsuit claims the district’s TABOR notice contained falsified dollar amounts and growth percentages and that the ballot language was false and misleading.

Lyons and Reester joined Pam Holmes Boyd, spokeswoman for the school district, in declining to make comments during the trial. In previous comments to this paper, school district officials said Question 3D complied with the law in both ballot language and its TABOR notice.

“The state Constitution requires the government to make a case to the citizens as to whether the amount of money it has been receiving is appropriate, and they failed to do so,” Cacioppo said.

Under TABOR, the school district has to make public the overall percentage of spending over the five-year period previous to asking for a tax increase.

“Ms. (Karen) Strakbein made a mistake and picked the wrong years,” Curtis said. “The difference would be $3 million more. The problem is that they spent more money than they said they have, and that is misleading.”

Strakbein is school district’s finance director. In her deposition Tuesday before the judge, she said the fiscal year expenditures published in the TABOR notice were correct.

“We gave the voters six years of information instead of five,” she said.

Former Eagle County school board President Tim McMichael, who served on the board when it passed the ballot language, told Judge Hart he didn’t find Question 3D misleading. McMichael declined, however, to answer several of Curtis’s questions, saying he feared repercussions from the teachers to his children.

“That’s why I’m not in the school board anymore, because some teachers took it out on my children when they weren’t happy with our (board’s) decisions,” McMichael said.

Gerald Nichols, who served a term on the same board, said he didn’t find the ballot question misleading, either.

“No, I didn’t, based my decision to vote in favor of question 3D on the TABOR notice,” he said.

Mindy DeLia, a member of the Eagle County School District Accountability Committee, who attended the trial Tuesday, said she was concerned if the school district had given the right information to voters.

“In my opinion, it hasn’t,” DeLia said. “There is a pattern of not answering questions from the part of the school district.

“This goes beyond the teachers’ raises. The focus should be on TABOR and if this has violated the state Constitution.”

In January, in a deposition before Eagle County District Court Judge Richard, Douglas Bruce, the Colorado Springs developer who 10 years ago wrote the TABOR amendment, said Question 3D “is unconstitutional because it violates various previsions of the TABOR amendment.”

The school board has repeatedly stated its intention to pay the money retroactively if and when the case is decided in the district’s favor.

If Cacioppo wins the case, the school district will have to refund the money to taxpayers, plus a 10 percent penalty.

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.

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