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County faces lawsuit over 2012 sheriff's tax

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A sales tax funds nearly a quarter of the Sheriff’s Office staff. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • A sales tax funds nearly a quarter of the Sheriff’s Office staff.

A version of this story first appeared on the Indy's news blog, The Wire.

When El Paso County asked voters in 2012 to impose a .23 percent sales tax to fund the Sheriff’s Office, the ballot question said the new tax would raise “approximately $17 million” annually.

Turns out, it raised $17,898,721 in the first year and even more every year since. But the county hasn’t made a move to either lower the tax or refund the extra money.

Now, anti-taxer Douglas Bruce wants to force the issue. He filed a lawsuit on Dec. 26 seeking a refund to taxpayers of that roughly $900,000, with 10 percent interest per year for four years, and a reduction in the tax rate to prevent future excess collections.

That’s what he says is required by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a state constitutional amendment that Bruce authored, which was adopted by voters in 1992. TABOR states that if a tax increase generates revenue that exceeds an estimate contained in the election notice ballot measure, the tax rate must be lowered in subsequent years and the excess refunded in the next fiscal year.

“They are only supposed to get whatever they asked for,” Bruce says, noting in the lawsuit that TABOR provisions were designed to “prevent government from ‘lowballing’ the true cost of what it requests in order to lure voters to support it.”

In support of his position, Bruce notes the state Legislature recognized the TABOR provision to be applicable to a similar situation involving marijuana taxes and then corrected it by seeking voter approval for a new revenue estimate.

“By lying to the voters, they [county officials] wanted to reward themselves with illegal money since 2013 and disregard the penalty, disregard the interest, disregard the rate reduction, disregard having lied about the $900,000 after they knew about it, because they are deeply dishonest thieves,” Bruce tells the Independent. “They just hoped that nobody would pay attention.”

County officials say they did not violate TABOR. A spokesperson for the County Attorney’s Office has previously said that language in the final paragraph of the ballot question essentially made all revenues exempt from TABOR limits. “The voters thus authorized the County to collect amounts above the estimated $17 million and to spend the same,” the county’s statement said.

But Bruce says they’re missing the point. TABOR requires a ballot measure to state a dollar amount to be collected and the government must adhere to that dollar amount, he says.

Asked to comment on Bruce’s lawsuit, county spokesperson Dave Rose said in an email, “Voters are consistently more discerning than some people assume. They understood that they were approving a 0.23 percent sales tax for critical public safety needs and they understand that if retail sales go up there will be additional money available for that purpose and likewise that if sales fall short some of the promised improvements may be delayed.”

The sheriff’s tax, meanwhile, has raised roughly $100.9 million and funds 192 of the Sheriff’s Office’s 800 personnel. The tax sunsets at the end of 2020 unless voters approve an extension.

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