Calling Sheriff Terry Maketa's request for a tax increase a "Hail Mary" maneuver, El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn says he opposes the tax, and even opposes placing it on the ballot.
"People are struggling," Glenn says. "People are unemployed. People are underemployed." And he questions the wisdom of submitting a measure to voters that would compete with a ballot question asking to extend the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority tax, which expires in 2014.
Such is the mood faced by Maketa, who wants a sales tax hike totaling .23 of 1 percent, or roughly $16 million annually, to address a backlog of needs, including equipment and staff for wildland firefighting; emergency preparedness needs, given the increased flood risk from the Waldo Canyon Fire; more patrol and jail deputies; updated radio communications; and visitation and security equipment for the Criminal Justice Center. Maketa was not available for an interview before press time, but he says via e-mail the sheriff could recommend the tax be decreased "at any time during the proposed life of this sales tax" if the economy improved, for example.
Maketa was due to present his request to commissioners Tuesday. They plan to vote Thursday whether to refer the question to voters on the Nov. 6 ballot, with the required second vote Tuesday, Sept. 4.
Historically, ballot measures for a sheriff's needs have been drubbed. In 1995, then-Sheriff John Anderson proposed measures to build a new jail, hire more jail deputies, and beef up street patrols. All three lost by margins up to 4-1. In 2002, the county asked for a property tax increase to expand and staff the jail, and to borrow money to build it. Both measures failed 2-1.
In 2008, the county asked for a 1 percent sales tax to fund the jail, other sheriff needs, and county services including the coroner and parks. About $75 million annually would've been shared with municipalities, but it failed 60-40. Since then, Maketa's spending has increased by 12 percent, to $51.7 million, according to budget documents.
With the PPRTA tax expiring soon, officials region-wide are backing an extension. Even tax-averse Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach is on board.
However, commissioners' opinions vary. While Amy Lathen told the Gazette she would vote to place Maketa's measure on the ballot, she stopped short of saying she'd campaign for it. Peggy Littleton says she'll decide after hearing Maketa's pitch, and is looking for "strict accountability, specific projects and a sunset." Sallie Clark says she hasn't committed, and Dennis Hisey didn't respond by press time to questions.
But Glenn has plenty to say. First, he notes, commissioners have known about many of Maketa's "valid, critical needs" for years. And he notes that commissioners are "just now starting our budget process. We're going to do our best to solve these needs, but the economy is struggling. We might not solve all of them, but that's the purpose of the budget process."
Second, the sheriff's measure would compete with PPRTA, which Glenn supports. Third, Glenn wants to wait for after-action reports on the fire response to assess the potential for "shared opportunities" between county and other governments.
"We need to analyze that as a community, and then if there are funding issues, address it," he says. "We're kind of putting the cart before the horse."
Glenn notes that tax hikes have a better chance after an extended period of public engagement. The 1-percent PPRTA tax passed in 2004, with most elected officials promoting it, after a much-smaller measure failed miserably in 1999.
"You never get things passed in the last minute," he says.