Monday, April 3, 2017

TABOR and Gallagher Tax Measures Impact Firefighters!

Suffice it to say, you need a program to follow all the twists and turns that have gone into the evolution of Colorado's tax laws.  Two major shifts over the years are about to cause those of us who live in Elbert County a major headache.  At first blush, it appears that the residents in the county will soon be receiving tax breaks due to the Gallagher Amendment passed a quarter of a century ago and the 1992 TABOR Measure (Tax Payer Bill of Rights) written by the Libertarian politician, Douglas Bruce.  It is beyond the scope of a mere blog post to fully detail the ramifications that the combination of these two pieces of legislation have caused during the past 25 years, but suffice it to say, it has been both a blessing and a curse to people of all political persuasions.  It has, in large part, done what it was advertised to do, which was to control tax and spend policies by both political parties in Colorado.    But for everything that might you want in the way of controlling taxes, there is always a down side.  The problem is how the cuts are made, what the law values, and more importantly what the law deems unnecessary.

Briefly, The Gallagher Amendment was an amendment to the Colorado Constitution. It was voted upon, passed by the voters and put into place in 1982. The gist of the bill was about Colorado's property taxes. The part that most crucially impacts us today in this amendment is the language requiring that the largest portion of taxes derived from property taxes must come from commercial properties.  Residential property taxes cannot exceed what comes from the commercial side of the ledger. That works well enough until you run into a period of time when residential properties values begin to soar.  That means that our residential taxes must be slashed to stay below what the commercial taxes are bringing into the coffers.

Sounds good, right?  Hold your horses there, Betty!  Go back to science class for just a moment.  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Sometimes we do not want to look at what our little windfalls are truly costing us.  See all of those noses littering the ground around you?  Those were cut off to spite lots of peoples own faces.  We in rural Colorado have way more to lose than those living in the cities.

We have been seeing property values on the rise for a good long while here in Colorado.  People love this state.  They love the tourist offerings.  They are curious about the state's stand on marijuana legalization.  They love the winter skiing and summer hiking.  Gallagher is causing our taxes to go down and  that also causes people to want to live here.  Unfortunately, with this drop in taxation, the services that are paid for by the property taxes also take a hit and that can be dangerous in vast areas of open land where fires can break out from lightning or human carelessness at any time.  I won't bother debating climate change, but I will say our continued dry spells, whatever the cause, make fire a genuine, legitimate reason for concern.  Rising house values and lowering tax rates cannot replace your home, your outbuildings or your livestock from a disaster.  Only fire prevention has a chance to do that, and one of the major hits as a result of the perfect storm between TABOR and Gallagher is that it hits rural fire protection districts the hardest.

TABOR is much more complicated and has been challenged and changed several times.  But suffice it to say it has both strength and weaknesses.  From Wikipedia, "In 1992, the voters of the state approved a measure which amended Article X of the Colorado Constitution that restricts revenues for all levels of government (state, local, and schools). Under TABOR, state and local governments cannot raise tax rates without voter approval and cannot spend revenues collected under existing tax rates without voter approval if revenues grow faster than the rate of inflation and population growth. Revenue in excess of the TABOR limit, commonly referred to as the "TABOR surplus", must be refunded to taxpayers, unless voters approve a revenue change as an offset in a referendum. Under TABOR, the state has returned more than $2 billion to taxpayers."  In other words, the tax cuts become permanent without a formal vote to the contrary.  These are lean times for Colorado fire protection districts and help is nowhere on the horizon.

In Platte Canyon Fire Protection District, a 280 square mile area that is prone to dangerous prairie fires, the cuts will be particularly severe.  It is estimated that the cuts could be as deep as 18% or $380,000 per year to a department of only sixteen firefighters.  There is no waste to cut.  The fact of the matter is that TABOR requires these types of cuts with no regard to public safety,  and that puts everyone at risk. Elbert County will also be experiencing tax cuts which will cause deep cuts to our local fire departments.  I urge you to go and spend some time at one of our district fire protection facilities and see the excellent job they do on a bare bones budget.  There is no waste and there is much sacrifice to keep us all safe.

So here in rural Colorado, the chickens have come home to roost. We all want to protect our rural way of life.  Oh sure, there are some elected officials who will plan and scheme to bring more rooftops and with it, more commercial development.  It would have  certainly caused less impact on our money that we receive from the state if we had more commercial development, but up to this point,  commercial enterprises have shown little interest in coming to Elbert County. Truth be told it is  because we have so little infrastructure, mostly dirt roads and almost no central sewage or water.  Such is the story of rural America.  Rural lifestyles here along the Front Range guarantee fewer safety net options, and until the fire comes, nobody really talks about the situation.


 The impact of these budget cuts affects not only fire protection, but also schools and almost every other use that is paid for by state tax dollars.  Millions of dollars are not going to be spent on local governments.  $500,000,000 are estimated to be cut from local governments in 2018 alone.  Our county is already broke and scrambling to make ends meet.  A cut in the money from the state will not be helpful.  Oh, and did I mention that it impacts law enforcement?  We all know what happens when the law enforcement budget gets cut in Elbert County.  We will either have to let officers go or come up with ways to generate more revenue and that always comes back to the local citizen's pocketbooks.

So what can we do?  It is not easy, but we have to stop listening to politicians and vote for our values.  If we want better fire protection, better schools, and great law enforcement we have to ask our legislature to address this problem.  It has to get on the ballot.  We need to have the tax laws written in such a way that we are both fiscally responsible and fair to those of us living in rural Colorado.  Nobody should have to worry about the possibility of having a fire destroy their home.  We have to build in a means to augment budgets that have been impacted unfairly by the TABOR/Gallagher situation.  We have made changes to TABOR already, and some would do away with it altogether, but I will settle for us just making anything happen that moves the needle on the common sense gauge more to the middle.  I like a good tax cut as well as anybody.  I love my home, my animals, my environment and my neighbors more.

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