Sparks Fly at El Paso County Commissioner Meeting Over TABOR Ballot Issue

At yesterday’s regular meeting of the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners, the commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of referring a question to November’s ballot. This ballot question will ask the voters if El Paso County may keep the estimated $15-$20 million TABOR overage, and reset the TABOR limit, allowing the county to keep future overages without going to a vote of the people each time.

Three of the five commissioners —Holly Williams, Stan VanderWerf, and Cami Bremer— voted for the question to go to the ballot. They say the funds will go toward road repairs. Commissioners Carrie Geitner and Longinos Gonzalez strongly opposed referring the question to the ballot.

Watch the entire discussion here.

At around the 4:00 mark, Commissioner Gonzalez begins to lay out the over $200 million in 3 years that the County has received and will continue to receive from various Federal COVID relief funds. He also cited a road project in District 4 that was supposed to be completed as a result of the 2017 TABOR overage retention. That project hasn’t yet been started. Gonzalez also suggested the County Commissioners look at an option to separate the mandated spending that comes from the state, with the spending over which the Commissioners have discretion.

At around the 10-minute mark, Commissioner Geitner called out her fellow commissioners for taking advantage of taxpayers and not being transparent. She also took issue with what the other 3 commissioners said, that they are putting it on the ballot to let the voters decide. She said that doing so is abdicating their responsibility.

The entire transcript is below. We didn’t want to you miss a word of the fireworks.

The ballot language, as approved, can be found here.

We appreciate Commissioners Gonzalez and Geitner speaking up for El Paso County fiscal sanity!


VanderWerf (00:00):

Does anybody have any comments they wish to give at this point?

Williams (00:04):

I do. And I appreciate the opportunity. I’m in support of, placing this resolution on the ballot and I always start with a small story. My dad probably didn’t say a word until he was about 85. He was a very quiet man. Then all of a sudden he just had to get everything out that he hadn’t said for 85 years. So I went to visit him in, I think it was 2018 and I pulled up the news article about it. And he sits me down and he’s having breakfast, he’s reading the newspaper and he goes, points to the newspaper and said, what do you think of this? And I said, well, in Colorado, we wouldn’t do that. The commissioners were having two public hearings to raise their mill levy by 66%. And they didn’t have to have input from the voters. That just astounded me. I’ve seen other places in Utah that have raised them 200% without asking the voters. So I said, well, dad, if you, if you want to live in Colorado, we’ll ask you. So needless to say, the politicians took a pretty, pretty big hit for that high property tax increase. So, I’m really, really thankful for TABOR.

I’ve enjoyed the two hearings we have because I really enjoyed listening to the comments from our elected officials, our public, both for and against this initiative. I actually, you know, one of the main things I like about TABOR is that it allows our voters to weigh in on an issue such as this. And I concur with the coroner’s comments that this is the voters right to choose and to allow them to express their intent.

I did want to say about my worst road in my district is Jesse Drive by Antelope Trails Elementary School. It’s more than 2.2 million. It’s a totally failed road. If you drive it, you will see why it’s totally failed. 200 parents drop their kids off every day at school. It’s more than 2.2 million to replace. This represents a list of roads that we can come up with a fairly accurate estimate of the work that needs to be done and get them replaced. Sometimes we run into intersections with various issues that might have property acquisition negotiations. One of our Pikes Peak RTA projects, Highway 105, we’re getting close and I keep hoping we’re going to get that one started. But it takes many years sometimes to resolve those property acquisitions issues. So, I’m in support of placing this on the ballot primarily because I think it’s the voter’s right to be able to look at the county, examine where we are spending the money and to allow them to express their intent. Thank you.

VanderWerf (03:30):

Thank you, commissioner Williams. Are there other comments from the board? Commissioner Gonzalez?

Gonzalez (03:36):

Thank you, Mr. Chair. Appreciate all the comments for and against. And I do also greatly appreciate all the input from the countywide electeds and the statewide representative and the letter that was read in earlier. I’m opposed to this resolution. And I mentioned this last week as to the several issues or concerns I have. One of these is that 2020 and 2021 the years of COVID where people lost their jobs, lost their businesses, struggled for a year, struggled into this year and continue to struggle. And so I find it difficult to want to ask, to retain dollars that I think they could use to help themselves and help their families. Last year we did provide $14 million of CARES Act dollars to small businesses to help people get back to work.

We are doing similar, we just announced earlier this week similar $10 million plus for businesses, over a thousand, I think small businesses that we were trying to help maintain and, and, and getting people back to work and maintain the strength of our businesses and our community. And you know, we were able to provide those dollars because last year I think we received $130 million as a county from cares act as a county. We rightfully and smartly provided lots of those dollars to local municipalities. But we still retained, I believe in the high $70 million, close to $80 million utilizations last year. And again, and we put that to very good use. Part of it, again was workforce center COVID related and small business, and getting people back to work. This year, we received another $69 million next year of ARPA funds, American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

Next year we’ll receive the final half of that, another $69 million. So, we’re talking about in a period of three years, over $200 million in additional funding to our county. And we are considering asking to retain another 15 to $20 million potentially. I just think that it doesn’t seem appropriate to do so when there might be some other options that do not retain the 12, the 15 or 20 million, but allows that to go back to the public.

Other concerns I do have outside of just the fact that people are still trying to get back to work. The 2017 retention and reset there were pro named projects in there. Christian, could I get the two slides again, the pictures and the name projects? One of the projects is a district four project. This is a proposed roundabout for safety purposes, after a couple of deaths. And almost four years later after that retention approval this, this project has not yet been started.

I find it difficult for myself, I represent the entire county and I do the best that I can to represent everybody, but I find it difficult to support a retention or reset for projects when a district four project has not even broken ground yet. And then thirdly there’s an option because we’re not asking to retain this past year’s dollars or seven point something million dollars. We have already decided to return that this would be the end of 2021 dollars. This exact same request could be done next year with a reset, if for some reason that we do find future issues in funding. We don’t know what the infrastructure bill that the federal government has been discussing could mean for us. We could have another tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars coming back to our local governments to spend as well.

And if that’s the case we could defer this for a year and if we really needed to do it and can do it again next year and asked to retain those 15 to $20 million without a loss of any of the funds that we are talking about today. The only difference is that instead of being able to fund spend them in 2022, we would have to not be able to spend that until 2023. There would be no loss of dollars if we just waited a year to see what happens with all these other federal tax dollars.

And then what I mentioned earlier is that I was actually, I did get to speak with the Sheriff Elder the other day, and he made a lot of good points- most of which he reiterated here. There are a lot of grant dollars from the state that would otherwise be spent somewhere in Denver or Boulder or somewhere else in the state that we have to turn down or not even apply to our county fair.

There’s a new program that we’re not even probably going to apply to because we would just have to return it because we’re an overage. There’s a possibility to approve through the people, again, asking the people to perhaps separate out those mandates that the state keeps pushing to us that we have no decision on whether we want to keep these dollars or our dollars for our roads, or something else that we consider a higher priority and separate it out. This would allow- if we were to pursue this option of separating out those state mandates and grants from our regular revenue. We could still give those 15 to $20 million of excess back to the public, and then any of these new grants and funds from the state, again, which would otherwise go to another area of the state, retain those and apply those and get to keep those so we could still give the money back to the people. We have this other source of grants and revenue to help offset these costs that were very properly highlighted earlier by the other countywide electeds. And I think it’s an option we should consider as a compromise that allows us to still support our conservative values and support refunding those dollars back to the public while also being able to keep additional dollars in a much smaller amount. I think the public would appreciate us giving most of that money back to the public and doing the best job that we can with the dollars given to us by our taxpayers. Thank you.

VanderWerf (10:02)

Thank you, Commissioner. Commissioner Geitner.

Geitner (10:09):

Thank you, Mr. Chair. I made several comments last week. My mind has not changed on those comments and I’m not going to reiterate them all, but I do appreciate Commissioner Gonzalez’s comments as well. I’m quite frankly just disappointed in this board. Unfortunately I don’t think anything could have been said in either public hearing that would have changed the outcome of this vote, and that is incredibly disappointing. And the internal conversations that have been internal entirely disappointing to me. A couple of things that I do want to point out. There’s been so much confusion over this ballot initiative, as I’ve talked to folks, and I said, this last week, there are a lot of people not here today. Certainly many of them are at work, but I’ve talked to a lot of people over the last two weeks.

And I know that there’s a lot of concern and a lot of misinformation. Even the media has not reported this correctly, that we’re asking for $15 million more. No, we’re not just asking for $15 million more. It could end up being considerably more than that if we’re all being honest. The voters don’t understand this ballot initiative. As I have spoken with them, they’re still struggling with understanding where that money is going to go. Today as we heard from a lot of our countywide elected officials, we heard about all kinds of other needs. And I have to address the fact that if we’re talking about these other needs, we’re obviously looking at the fact that there’s going to be other money that is not going to be specifically laid out for the voters as they are in the roads and the parks that we’re hoping to spend. So to say that we’re being transparent about where all that money could potentially go is not accurate to me.

I absolutely cannot stand the argument: We’ll just let the voters decide. And here’s why. While I agree that our voters have a lot of important things to say, it is abdicating our responsibility to say, we’ll just let them decide. We don’t put a tax increase on the ballot every year and let them decide. We have to actually come up with a plan and show our voters that we’ve done everything we could within where we are. And then if we have to ask, that’s a time to ask undertaker in my opinion, but to just say, we’ll just let the voters decide is abdicating our responsibilities. We know more about the operations of our county than any citizen is going to. That’s how it’s designed for us to represent them. And so, I cannot agree with that statement.

I cannot agree that we will not be taking money out of the pockets. We will be. Every person who doesn’t vote for this. We will be taking money out of their pockets without their permission. We won’t return it to 40% who don’t vote for it, if it passes. I think that it’s serious to consider the implications of what we’re doing. I think it is not trivial, and it’s not $15 a house. It’s potentially more and more money down the road. We’ve talked about a lot of problems today, and I think we have a lot of struggles.

One thing that we didn’t also hear about is the fact that our tax base is continually expanding. The fact that our cap takes into account inflation and population changes. And I think we’re being dishonest by not talking about all of these things. And I think that there’s more that we can do much more, that we can do to have a robust discussion and to make decisions that will better impact our county down the road. One of those things is state revenues. It’s a problem. We’ve talked a little bit about that. I don’t think we’ve gotten to enough robust discussions about a long-term plan. What I have seen is there’s money on the table and we can’t let it go. I’ve heard things in this room, just last week about taking advantage. And I cannot support that. So, Mr. Chair, I will be in strong opposition to this, and it will not stop here today. It will go all the way through November.

VanderWerf (14:20):

Thank you, Commissioner. Commissioner Bremer.

Bremer (14:25)

Thank you, Mr. Chair. You know, none of these decisions are easy and I too am fairly disappointed. I’m disappointed in the insinuation that board members aren’t taking our responsibility very seriously. Because today’s vote isn’t about government reaching into your pockets. It’s about you deciding as one of our callers said, what government should do for you? What we should be doing. Every day that I’ve served in office, I’ve strived to put power in the hands of our citizens to allow their voices, to be heard. I trust our voters to make wise decisions with their own money, much more so than politicians or politicos. I’m going to catch flak from people in my own party for trusting our citizens with this decision.

I view government as one of, of the people by the people and for the people. Which means we should put important decisions on the ballot when appropriate and allowed by the constitution and the law. This is just that case. And so I will vote to give every citizen in our county, the right to self-determine. I believe that when I raised my hand and took the oath of office, I promised to uphold the constitution of the state of Colorado, which protects the rights of citizens to make this decision with their votes. I will not support or oppose the ballot measure, but I unapologetically support it going to the ballot. And I encourage you to make your voice heard with your vote. Thank you.

VanderWerf (16:40):

Thank you. And so for my comments, and then we’ll entertain a motion. So we have over the last year received almost a thousand complaints from citizens about deteriorating roads. We have a challenge, we have a problem with our roads and I feel very strongly along the lines of Commissioner Williams and Commissioner Bremmer you know, we fight to ensure that parents have a choice about where their kids go to school. And we fight to ensure that parents says that’s to ensure that citizens can choose to wear or not wear a mask. And we fight to ensure that citizens have a right to choose or not choose a vaccine. These are principles that we stand on.

I see this principle in play here, and I think we need to give our, our citizens a choice to take this to the ballot and they get to choose what happens to their taxpayer money. And they may choose to allow us to reset the Tabor and they may choose not to, but once the people have spoken, that will be the decision. And I think we owe it to them to have that choice. We will make our points and we will make our arguments about and our advocacy about what we believe in whether that is to support or oppose the ballot measure. But fundamental to this question is giving our voters that choice. Ladies and gentlemen, I stand on that. I think that’s very, very important and I will vote in support of this ballot measure, so our citizens can have that choice. And those are my comments at this point. So I will entertain a motion for proceeding forward on this measure.

Williams (19:05):

I would move approval that we refer this item the TABOR ballot language that we have discussed today to the ballot for consideration by the voters in November 2nd.

VanderWerf (19:18):

All right. That’s been moved and seconded. Are there any last comments or questions from any of the commissioners commissioner Gonzalez?

Gonzalez (19:25):

Thank you, Mr. Chair. I did want to add one thing because somebody mentioned the quote. I did appreciate one of the comments from a gentleman who had mentioned what government can provide and what they should provide. Some of the things we’re having to fund are things that the state says we should provide, and we don’t necessarily agree with some of those and that’s adding to the costs, additional costs that we’re doing here and was mentioned earlier. These are additional costs that we don’t think are necessarily the right things for this, the local governments or the state to be doing, but yet, they keep getting approved and pushed down. And these are the things at what I will say by people voting to support this- you are not fixing it. You’re putting a bandage on the wound.

You know, this is not fixing the issue that the state will continue coming back to us with more and more things. I’ve fought as hard as I can for several, several years against the state overreach mandates dollars. And we’re not fixing the original issue. It’s hard to do when it’s a one-party rule of the state. But I sometimes feel, I’ve been the one who’s making all the noise or too much of the noise pushing back on these. And I do ask if they do support this, that I hear more people pushing back on these unfunded mandates from the states and fighting a little bit harder, and you guys are fighting fight for us because this is what people do when they fix it and put a bandage on an issue that’s not getting fixed and we need to fix it at the state. And I’m again, I just want to highlight that and I appreciate it everybody. Well, thank you.

VanderWerf (21:00):

Thank you, commissioner. And I’ll concur with those statements. You know, the recently passed transportation bill had the vast majority of the revenue generation for that bill is not coming from general revenues where it always should have come from – it’s coming from additional fees. And the vast majority of those additional fees, I think are improperly defined. They’re not fees, they’re taxes, they’re tax increases. And since they’re tax increases and TABOR is a statute in the state of Colorado that should have been referred to the citizens for a vote, but that is not how that went. And, so, I believe in my heart that the state has violated TABOR, and I consider that very unfortunate, but I’ll also make the point. And, and I know that some will have a disagreement on the board and, and we’ll have a conversation with the community, but in referring this ballot to the voters, we are abiding by the TABOR statute.

We are asking the voters to make a choice and we are not doing what the state did, which was to hide something behind a fee and, and not let the voters have a say in how their money will be spent. We’re not doing that. We’re actually referring this to the voters and giving them that opportunity. So commissioner Gonzalez, I concur with your points. We do need to continue to fight and I’m very interested if there’s more effective ways we can fight the state and keep them from doing those kinds of things. Because I thought they were wrong as well. Any other comments? Oh yes. Commissioner Gonzalez.

Gonzalez (22:42):

I apologize, but I did want to add that. I truly did not feel we provided adequate discussion of alternatives because I don’t think this was either or I think there was some other options. I did highlight one that I don’t think I got additional comments or discussion. And so I just don’t think we provided enough discussion on all the other available options to support our residents. Thank you.

VanderWerf (23:11):

Yes. Thank you. Commissioner Geitner.

Geitner (23:14):

I just want to make one additional comment as well. To my colleagues, I would ask, are you willing to put onto the ballot in every future year, if there’s an overage, the question to the voters on whether or not it should be that month, those over just should be kept or not. Are you willing to put on the ballot to complete the tapering of our county and if not, the comments have been hypocrisy.

VanderWerf (23:40):

Thank you, commissioner. Geitner. And are there any other comments?

VanderWerf (23:49):

Let’s go ahead and proceed with a vote:

Commissioner Williams Aye

Commissioner Geitner Nay

Commissioner Gonzalez Nay

Commissioner Bremmer Aye

And the chair votes. Aye.

That passes three-two for reference of this ballot measure for November vote of the citizens.

Thank you everybody.

2 thoughts on “Sparks Fly at El Paso County Commissioner Meeting Over TABOR Ballot Issue

  1. Not surprised that Williams (wife of long time politician Wayne) nor Bremer (wife of son of long time family of politicians) voted for putting this on the ballot. Am disappointed in VanderWerf to not stand up for the taxpayers of El Paso County. Sad when politics infects people who began well.

  2. The politicians always say we need to raise taxes to pay for roads. I thought that was included in the price of gas. Where does the money go?

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