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Columnist: An eye on rising Eagle County property taxes

Paul Rondeau
Vail, CO Colorado

I had two articles in the Vail Daily (12/31/07 and 1/4/08) that explained in some detail how the property tax system works and provided perspective by explaining how selected taxing entities dealt with the rising taxes issue. After doing the research to write the articles, I thought I had a handle on most of the details.

Wrong! The Feb. 25 “taxpayer revolt” meeting sponsored by the Eagle County Taxpayers For Common Sense organization brought out some really key points beyond what I and others have understood or written about.

– De-Brucing: The 1992 TABOR Colorado constitution amendment (Mr. Bruce was the driving force behind its adoption) provided a rational and flexible means of putting a cap on local property taxes: TABOR allowed for an override of the cap by a vote of the local registered voters ” this point is generally well understood.

What is not widely known is the TABOR amendment only allowed this override for four years, thereby giving the resident voters a chance to reconsider the over-ride with current information for tax needs or their own views.

Note: 43 of the 77 taxing entities in Eagle county have de-Bruced.

It turns out the courts have effectively ignored the four-year limit, saying if the voters don’t want TABOR, they should have that right without a time limit. That may sound reasonable until you consider how difficult it is for the average voter to understand the wording of the ballot questions. The organizers of the Feb. 25 meeting passed out two examples of such obscure ballot questions.

– Voluntary tax relief by de-Brucing taxing entities: Some taxing organizations have reduced the tax rate (mill levy) based on the additional funds exceeding their needs. But note much has been written or stated about uncertainties of lowering the tax rate and being able to raise it later without a vote. Hence, the issue remains alive based on:

– The wording in the original de-Brucing ballot question.

– Legal opinion or opinions given to individual taxing entities.

– Much of the tax increase is out of local control: The local school districts can account for approximately half of the taxes collected and the tax increase. May sound good until you consider the school district does not get the tax increase:

It turns out the legislature and the governor’s signature have just created a Robin Hood program to take from the well-to-do school districts (Eagle and Pitkin counties topping the list) and give to the less well-off districts. This may even sound good until you consider … the program could become rob from the rich and give a portion to the poor, keeping a portion for Robin Hood (by throwing the money into the state’s general fund).

– No end in sight: Taxes in Eagle county are going to be high and getting higher as far out as anybody can predict:

Without the TABOR cap in place (and a 1986 Colorado statue limiting increases to 5.5 percent), property taxes can go up without limit. Any notion of re-introducing TABOR may be wishful thinking ” apparently there are no precedents of doing this, coupled with the fact that voter-initiated ballot questions are only possible in “home rule” taxing entities “Vail and Avon are the only ones in Eagle county.

The most promising tack may be to go back to the original de-Brucing, 500-words-or-less pro/con statements (required by TABOR!) and critically review the proponents’ view of the needs and expected outcome, coupled with warnings from the opponents. Then the public may be able to make the case for de-Brucing, lowering the tax rate or, at a minimum, seek public input concerning appropriate use of the additional taxes coming in.

Tax increases and promises of more to come strikes a major blow to the notion of local employees (teachers, resort-related service workers, trades people, healthcare providers, etc.) and retirees being able to live here. Rent-controlled housing and price-capped ownership may be appropriate for some, but market-based rent and purchased housing (some with deed restrictions) must continue to play a primary role in a balanced community.

In summary, the good thing about the “taxpayer revolt” meeting is it has hopefully awakened the citizenry to get involved by attending government meetings, understanding ballot questions before voting, running for offices, questioning candidates for office and holding elected officials accountable for their actions. Finally, we are still left with second homeowners who cannot vote ” for some, paying property taxes is something they don’t focus on (“handled by my accountant”), but for others it really affects family budgets as it does for most full-time residents.

Paul Rondeau is an Eagle County resident


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