We support Routt County's plan to improve 59 miles of county roads during the next six years. But county commissioners' decision to ask voters for a permanent exemption from the Taxpayers Bill of Rights to fund such improvements is excessive and unjustified. Therefore, we urge residents to vote "no" on Referendum 1A.
Referendum 1A asks Routt County voters to exempt county government from TABOR revenue restrictions. The exemption, often referred to as "deBrucing," would set the county's property tax mill levy at 12.266. The current mill levy of 12.42 is set to decrease to 9.229 next year unless the referendum is approved.
County commissioners say the revenues, projected to be $3.3 million for tax year 2007, would be used primarily for road and bridge projects, including the reconstruction of busy Routt County Road 14. For the first six years, $2.6 million would go to road and bridge projects, and the remaining $700,000 would be used for increased county operating expenses, including personnel.
Of the $2.6 million allocated annually to road and bridge projects, more than $800,000 would go to local municipalities, with the city of Steamboat Springs receiving the bulk of those revenues. Revenue distribution to local municipalities is required by state law.
After distribution, the county is left with about $1.7 million a year specifically for road and bridge projects. The six-year road and bridge improvement plan calls for $18.9 million in work. Of that total, $10.4 million would be funded by Referendum 1A, and the remaining $8.5 million would come from county reserves.
Here's the rub: After the first six years, the county would put $2.6 million annually toward unspecified capital projects and needs, and whatever remaining revenues are generated by Referendum 1A could be spent at the will of future county commissioners. Given the rapid growth of property values, we can only guess how large that pot of money will become.
Our current county commissioners say they didn't want to tie the hands of their successors, and to be fair, the county certainly has proven to be more fiscally prudent than the city of Steamboat Springs.
We're sympathetic to the concerns of the commissioners, including that TABOR was tailored to Front Range communities and can hurt the ability of local governments to meet the needs of their constituents. This is especially true in years of dramatic property value growth and rapidly increasing costs of goods and services.
It also deserves mentioning that the six-year road improvement plan was the result of many hours of input and work from county officials and volunteer residents. The plan provides a clear direction for the county that should be followed.
But none of this means Routt County has proved the need for a permanent, mostly blank check from taxpayers. We wish the county had proposed a deBrucing measure that sunset after six years. Then, the county could return to voters for additional funds, if necessary, in future years.
Or, if the future financial needs of the county simply can't be met because of TABOR, commissioners should have come up with a more specific plan for how Referendum 1A revenues would be spent beyond 2012.
Instead, voters must decide on a permanent deBrucing measure with a spending plan for only its first few years. For that reason, we urge a "no" vote on Referendum 1A.