Diana Cecala: TABOR would hurt county now | VailDaily.com

Diana Cecala: TABOR would hurt county now

Diana Cecala

The two Republican candidates for county commissioner have both pledged support to rolling back our property taxes by supporting the TABOR Amendment. In doing this, they have made a pledge they cannot keep. Dick Gustafson and Debbie Buckley have simply not done their homework and their tax recommendations show no understanding of the realities of county finances.

I took it upon myself to look at the county’s latest financials and their budget (2008).Then I called the county’s finance office and asked a number of questions about how Eagle County dollars are spent and reported.

Republican Allegation: Gustafson and Buckley both assert that if Eagle County strictly adheres to the TABOR guidelines, we could still meet our financial obligations to county residents and save a lot of money.

Financial Fact: Strict adherence to the TABOR Amendment was estimated by the finance office to reduce Eagle County revenue by $2.5 million today and $4 million by the year 2010. There is no way to cut that amount of money from the budget without affecting basic services now provided to Eagle County residents.

With the TABOR “savings” (i.e. budget cuts) in place, a significant number of dollars would have to be cut from current projects or services to balance the new, reduced county budget. So the big question becomes: what could we cut from the county budget right now to cover that revenue shortfall?

Listed below are some possible areas of savings and the obstacles to cutting them:

Xeriscape and other capital projects: Off limits because these were paid for with capital improvements funds funded by sales taxes, not the property tax. By state statute, the county cannot legally substitute one for the other.

Justice Center: Again, this was paid for with capital improvements dollars. Jail operations however, are paid out of property taxes so we could theoretically simply not hire new employees to watch the prisoners in the new jail, but who would recommend that?

Stratton Flats: That is a loan, not an expense.

Airport, landfill, Eco Bus: All these are funded with separate, dedicated funds.

Early childhood programs: Now this is an area we could completely eliminate and save $750,000, but we would lose over $500,000 in state grants and donations to the detriment of most child care centers in the county. Most young working families in the valley would argue that the county needs more child-care opportunities, not fewer. Also, studies have shown that every dollar we invest now in early childhood will save us $7 later. Maybe we better start planning on increasing space in the jail now because that payback we are hoping for by the time the kids turn 17 will not happen. But OK, let’s say we do not believe the national statistic and decide to make that cut as necessary “belt-tightening” as Gustafson likes to call it.

Road and bridge department: The road and bridge department is another department that relies on property taxes for funding and so is technically eligible for cuts. But before the recent increase in revenue, the road and bridge department had inadequate funding to rebuild the deteriorating bridges in Eagle County. If we try to obtain TABOR-required cuts from the road and bridge department, I’m worried that we’ll be looking at road closures and snowplowing only after one foot of snow. I’m not going to even put that department on the list for cuts.

Staffing at various offices: I found out that since 2002, the only sizable increases in staff have been to the Sheriff’s Office and health and human services. I was told that much of health and human services is matched with state funds and most is apparently statutorily required. So let’s say we cut them by 25 percent anyway. That will get us another $1 million. Along with the early childhood cuts, we now have found $1.75 million.

The assessor? The assessor had a net decrease of two positions since 2002.

Clerk and recorder? They have had a net increase of one position since 2002 with an increased population to serve. How long do we want to wait for our licenses and for voting?

The Sheriff’s Office? That’s a possibility. I was told that the Sheriff’s Office expenses make up about one-third of the general fund. A $4 million TABOR cut would require at least one-third of that or $1.3 million. Added to our previous cuts, that would give us a little more than $3 million. But how are Gustafson and Buckley planning to explain the cuts to a fellow Republican sheriff? And where does the other $1 million required by TABOR come from? The math behind their tax cut plan simply doesn’t work.

Our taxes are among the lowest in the U.S. We are very fortunate to live in a county where almost two-thirds of the property taxes are paid for by second-home owners. Our second-home owners make our property taxes about one-sixth of the taxes paid by many other communities like Texas. The property tax is a “progressive” tax because it taxes people proportionately to their wealth (unlike the “regressive” sales tax which falls heaviest on working people.) Large cuts in our property taxes will provide the biggest savings to second-home owners and those with expensive houses. That will save them money, but will result only in decreased services and eventually reduced property values for the rest of us who live here year round.

Voters, don’t be fooled. Check the facts before you vote for promises of unfeasible tax cuts.

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