Elbert County ballot measure flying under radar

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In early September, county commissioners gave final approval to ballot language for a proposed property tax mill levy increase. But a month before Election Day, not many folks around the county seem to be aware of the proposed tax hike.

An informal poll conducted Oct. 2 asked 25 county residents if they were aware of the proposed mill levy increase. Only two answered yes, and both were county employees.

“I don't know anything about it,” said Susan Troidl, who lives in Overland Estates outside Elizabeth. “But then I'm not a big political person. I think we need to get rid of everybody and state anew. I think there's a lot of dead weight in our county government.”

Joshua McCarthey, a Kiowa resident, also had not heard about the proposed tax increase. “Where I come from in the Texas hill country, all the little towns are broke,” he said. “I'm not against raising taxes if that's the only way to pay for keeping up the roads.”

At the September special meeting, Commissioner Kurt Schlegel warned that the county was running out of money. “This is very serious,” he said. “We're circling the drain.”

Hot-button issue

Tax increases of any kind tend to be a hot-button issue in a conservative county where two of three county commissioners have a direct connection to the Tea Party — Board Chair Robert Rowland founded the Elbert County chapter, and Schlegel's wife is its current president.

But Schlegel and Rowland ultimately supported the proposed mill levy hike, arguing that it was necessary to bolster the county's anemic coffers and continue funding critical public-safety services.

The county is currently facing an estimated $194,000 shortfall in anticipated 2013 General Fund revenues and has already instituted a number of cost-cutting measures including layoffs, pay cuts and the reduction of the work week for county employees from 40 to 36 hours.

Adding insult to injury, the county has just $20,000 in emergency reserve funds and county officials must also figure out a way to pay for at least $291,000 in projected new — and yet unbudgeted — expenses that will come due in 2014, outlays related, in part, to shoring up the county's decaying infrastructure and hiring sorely needed additional county employees.

Officials warn of cuts

Both Rowland and Schlegel have warned that if voters do not approve the mill levy increase, significant and immediate cuts will have to be made in county services, including decreased funding of both public safety (police and fire) and road maintenance.

“In 2009 the county receipts were $9.6 million and in fiscal 2012 those receipts had fallen to $7.4 million — a drop of over $2 million,” said Tim Buchanan, who lives in the town of Elbert and runs a consulting firm called Timotheos Inc. He is also a professor at Regis University and teaches a course in behavioral economics.

Buchanan was hired last month as a consultant to the board of county commissioners and is being paid $15,000 through November 15 to help shepherd the proposed mill levy increase and with “organizational leadership issues — one of my specialties.”

On Oct. 2, Buchanan and the three commissioners held a community forum at the Rattlesnake Fire Training Facility in northwest Elbert County. About 20 people attended the meeting, which was called “to discuss the county revenue shortfalls and its increasing impact on county services.”

Two more public meetings are scheduled for later this month: one on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. at Legacy Academy in Elizabeth and another on Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. at the county fairgrounds in Kiowa.

“The county has laid off personnel, delayed maintenance and trimmed expenses to the point it is no longer sustainable,” Buchanan said. “The current mill levy will only partially replace this loss of receipts for the county.”

Buchanan estimated the proposed mill levy increase, if approved, would add about $63.68 annually to the taxes on a $200,000 property.

“This means that in order to keep the county financially strong and replace the lost revenue over the last several years, the average homeowner will invest less than 20 cents a day,” he said.

Employees at risk

A proposed repeal of the “tool tax exemption,” which applies mainly to oil, gas and wind energy producers, will also be on the Nov. 5 ballot, and Buchanan pointed out that if voters OK the repeal, the additional revenue “will assist the (county's) Road and Bridge (department) in replacing some of their lost revenue.”

Although county commissioners are prohibited by law from publicly lobbying for or against the mill levy hike, Buchanan said last week: “If it doesn't pass, it's going to be a devastating thing for county employees.”

Contacted on Oct. 2 outside the Elizabeth library, Elizabeth resident Giget LoManto said that she was not aware of the proposed mill levy increase but would support it “as long as the county does something with the money and doesn't just pocket it.”

“The roads are awful around here,” said LoManto. “Every time it rains, even with new tires, you just about slide off the road. And when you go to the building department, the people who work there don't seem to know what they're doing. Whenever I go to Kiowa to the courthouse, everything is just so slow.”

More information

Here is the ballot question Elbert County voters will see regarding the proposed mill levy increase:

Shall Elbert County taxes be increased $1,045,374.60 annually (first full fiscal year dollar increase) by such amounts as may be generated annually thereafter by the imposition of an additional mill levy of not to exceed four mills for General Fund purposes and applied for the purpose of funding Elbert County General Fund operating expenditures, and shall Elbert County be permitted to collect, retain and expend all revenues derived from such taxes and any earnings thereon, regardless of whether the annual revenues from such taxes in any year after the first full fiscal year in which it is in effect exceed the estimated dollar amount stated above, either as a voter-approved revenue change or an exception to limits on revenues and spending, and without limiting the collection or spending of any other revenues or funds by the County under Article X, Section 20 of the Colorado Constitution or any other law?

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