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As a few hundred power brokers and political junkies already know, our power-lunchin' City Council is toying with the idea of raising the municipal sales tax from 2.1 percent to 3.1 percent, ostensibly to fund capital improvements and public safety.

It'd be a pretty dramatic hike, one that would snatch a fair amount of cash from our pockets. But thanks to the Doug Bruce-sponsored charter amendments of 1991, Council can't do it without the permission of the taxpayers. That being the case, we can expect the usual cheerfully duplicitous campaign from the guys and gals in charge to sell the tax increase next April. Such campaigns follow familiar scripts, which present a cartoonish, carefully sanitized picture of the city's supposedly dire financial straits. Here's the pitch (with italicized caveats):

Thanks to rapid growth and low tax rates, the city simply doesn't have the resources to fund basic public services.

Oh, really? Let's look at crime rates, losses from structure fires and the overall condition of our fair city. Doesn't look like it's going to crumble into dust anytime soon -- sure, we could always do more, but things still look pretty good.

This isn't just the conclusion of a bunch of money-grabbing politicians; hundreds of upstanding, unbiased citizen volunteers have conceived and created this proposal.

Participants in the SCIP process are far from a random sample of the community. Some of 'em (particularly representatives from the business/real-estate community) have a dog in this fight. And most of 'em are biased toward activist government, or else they wouldn't want to participate in the process to begin with.

This isn't a wish list; every project to be funded has been scrutinized by these selfsame frugal, tightfisted volunteers.

That's debatable; projects make the cut because they have constituencies, not because they're vital to the city.

Besides, our local tax rates are way below those of any comparable city in Colorado -- no wonder we're falling farther and farther behind. We just can't afford to pay our employees competitive wages, particularly in public safety positions.

Municipal tax rates are low only if you ignore the County's 1 percent sales tax. True, some city employees (particularly cops) ought to be better paid, but that's a matter of Council priorities.

Just look at these statistics (insert charts, graphs and columns of figures, helpfully prepared by city staff) -- see how efficient we are, and how we've made every dollar count!

The mind boggles, the head spins, the eyes glaze over. In the war of dueling statistics, conventional wisdom is always right -- isn't it?

Besides, we'll scarcely feel the impact of a sales tax increase, since visitors pay as much as 40 percent of all sales taxes.

One of the city's favorite stats, both unprovable and improbable. What do visitors buy? Gasoline, lodging, meals and the occasional trinket. What do residents buy? Cars, refrigerators, clothes and televisions.

So if the city is really in pretty good shape, why do all these folks want a hefty tax increase?

Two reasons: A lot of them sincerely believe that, just as a family is made secure by a big income and a substantial net worth, the city is not healthy unless generously funded by its citizens. Others, less idealistic and coldly practical, want to see their pet projects funded.

Take, for example, the proposed downtown convention center, which the benighted voters have nixed several times in the last quarter-century. A tax increase dedicated to funding such a facility would be DOA, but any new tax would create room for a little budgetary sleight of hand.

Given that an additional 1 percent sales tax would up city revenues by over $50 million, and given that municipal financial statements are as arcane and incomprehensible as a Mike Shanahan game plan, there'd be plenty of ways to skin this particular cat.

Here's something to consider: The city levies a tax on car rentals and hotel rooms, which brings in over $3 million annually. That tax funds the Convention & Visitors Bureau, as well as miscellaneous worthy (the Fine Arts Center) and not-so-worthy (the Global Affairs Council) recipients of municipal largesse.

Why doesn't Council simply move these expenditures into the newly fattened general fund, and use the revenue stream from the so-called Bed & Car tax to support the convention center.

Sweet and simple, and no voter permission needed!

Would Council do it? Dunno, but as Cara DeGette pointed out last week, these are the same guys and gals who have downed 21 grand worth of free lunches so far this year alone.

And as bell ringers remind us during the holiday season, it is more blessed to give than to receive ...


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