Eagle County fire districts hope no one challenges recent ballot measures | VailDaily.com

Eagle County fire districts hope no one challenges recent ballot measures

The Gypsum Fire Protection District asked voters to adjust property tax rates to stave off deep revenue losses caused by requirements of the state’s Gallagher Amendment. Voters overwhelmingly passed the measure.

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories in the wake of the Tuesday, Nov. 6, election explaining the impact of decisions voters made. Find additional stories at http://www.vaildaily.com.

EAGLE COUNTY — A 1980s-vintage amendment to the state constitution has been slowly strangling the state's special districts. This year, many of those districts asked their voters for help. The question now is whether anyone will challenge those elections.

The Gallagher Amendment sets a firm ratio in the amount of the state's property tax collections to be paid by owners of residential and nonresidential property owners. The residential portion of those collections can't exceed 45 percent.

When that ratio starts to get out of balance, property tax rates drop for residential property. In communities such as Gypsum, when rates drop, revenues drop for special districts — including the Gypsum Fire Protection District — that depend almost entirely on property tax collections.

Relief from Gallagher

That district, along with the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District and Colorado Mountain College, all asked voters this fall for relief from Gallagher's restrictions. All three succeeded. In fact, districts across the state this fall asked for relief from those restrictions. All but two succeeded.

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While voters approved helping their special district, this is relatively uncharted territory for these particular voter requests. That means legal challenges are possible.

"We were advised there could be challenges later," Gypsum Fire Chief Justin Kirkland said. But, he added, the district's ballot language was written to avoid those challenges.

"We were hopeful there wouldn't be issues," Kirkland said, noting that virtually every district with a ballot issue was told challenges could be coming.

While every district was cautioned, Kirkland said ballot language differed from district to district.

Richard Gonzalez is the attorney for Colorado Mountain College. Gonzalez said the college relied on outside counsel for advice on complying with another constitutional amendment, the 1992 Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

That amendment requires voter approval for government increases in revenue or changes in tax rates.

"Our intent was to comply with that," Gonzalez said.

One key to the local tax questions was that the districts asked voters to maintain current revenues. To do that required increases in property tax rates.

Ann Terry is the director of the Special District Association of Colorado. Terry said she hadn't yet been informed of any challenges to the Gallagher-adjustment questions.

But that doesn't mean a challenge won't be mounted.

Terry said the Colorado Legislature this year created a working group to try to find answers to the revenue losses posed by Gallagher. But, she added, voters will ultimately have to approve any changes to the amendment.

"I hope it all works out, but we had to try," Kirkland said. But, he said, given the number of similar ballot questions that passed, and by wide margins, it's apparent there is support for the changes requested by the districts.

And, he added, something needed to be done to avoid potentially crippling losses of revenue.

"In everything we do, it comes with risk and challenge," Kirkland said. "Do we sit back and just fade into the dark, or do we (act with) the best intent to provide for our citizens? We'll just have to deal with what comes."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com and 970-748-2930.

What’s the problem?

The Colorado Constitution’s Gallagher Amendment was passed by voters in 1982. That amendment sets a permanent ratio of property tax to be paid by residential and non-residential property owners. Residential property can make up no more than 45 percent of the state’s total property tax collections. The state’s growth means residential property owners have been paying lower and lower rates over the decades.