Dear Citizens of El Paso County,
My campaign has been studying the Public Safety Tax (PST – 1A) issue for a few months, analyzing documents and following the money as best we can (that’s often elusive). Through the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), we’ve requested documents related to it, but what we’ve received has only served to raise new concerns. This post is about our findings and the questions we now have.
In November 2012, El Paso County residents approved a ballot measure known as ‘1A’ to levy a sales tax of .23% to fund a variety of public safety needs over the space of eight years. A large part of the money went to the Sheriff’s Office, specifically to:
- Increase jail staffing
- Increase patrol manpower
- Improve wildfire and emergency response
It was estimated the tax would generate approximately $17 million each year, but in reality, it has typically generated millions more.
The sales tax has also generated many questions concerning proper accountability and transparency. When I launched my campaign in late August, the PST immediately stood out as a major issue on the minds of people in the county, especially people who felt they did not have the kind of accountability and transparency over the money as promised and as required by law.
I submitted a CORA request related to PST money on Sep 12, 2017, and on September 29th, I received a response. The entire package (request and response) can be found here.
As you can see from my request, I had asked for soft copies of records and for permission to visit county offices and review hard copy documents as well. On September 19th, Steven Klaffky, an Assistant County Attorney sent an interim reply (read it here) in which he stated:
“You also have requested both physical inspection and digital copies of records – it is very likely most of these records exist digitally. In practice, it often is much more efficient and saves time providing records in a digital format to the requestor (sic)…”
In addition, Mr. Klaffky noted that after the first free hour of time spent responding to my CORA, the county would charge $30 per hour thereafter.
Based upon Mr. Klaffky’s suggestion that “most of these records exist digitally,” I dropped my request to physically inspect the records and opted for the soft copy route only.
When I received the response to my CORA request on September 29th, it was accompanied by a cover email from Dave Rose, Chief Public Information Officer, El Paso County (read it here).
Mr. Rose included this comment:
“Please note that a complete line-by-line breakdown of 1A payments would require an estimated 100+ (hours) to complete research, retrieval and compilation from the County’s Budget and Finance staff.”
At $30/hour, the county now planned to charge me $3,000+ to comply with my CORA request. But this response raised an entirely different concern.
If Mr. Klaffky was correct that “most of these records exist digitally,” then why would Mr. Rose claim it would take 100+ hours to produce them?
Which county official is telling the truth?
Given the diametrically different responses, it would appear that both officials cannot be truthful. The records are either available digitally (making for quick retrieval), or they are not digital (and would take excessive time to produce).
Of course, the fact that I have never received the data I requested suggests the real goal may have been to stall or simply deny access. But why?
The Sheriff’s Office is required to provide accountability and transparency over PST money, so it should proactively give access to the public even if no one requests it. But when requested, the last thing a taxpayer should have to face is a bill for $3,000 to learn where his own money has gone.
What piqued our interest the most was a series of multi-million-dollar discrepancies with what the EPSO claimed was actual PST money spent over the years, with amounts differing depending on the source document.
Here we examined two sources, both of which were in the same CORA response. The first is the EPSO 2017 ‘Public Safety Tax Halftime Report’ (page 5 of the CORA package). The other is a sequence of EPSO Final Audited Figures balance sheets for 2013 through 2016 (pages 8 – 11 of the CORA package).
For each year, we looked at what EPSO reported to the public in the Halftime Report, specifically two set of numbers: Operating and Capital (O&C) (middle of each column), and the total PST money spent. Keep in mind, these are reportedly ‘actual’ amounts vice ‘budgeted.’
We compared them to the same categories in the internal EPSO Final Audited balance sheets. We’ve created a chart to help sift through the issues we identified.
|PST Discrepancies ($ in millions)||2013||2014||2015||2016|
|Internal Audited Total||12.98||20.80||17.29||20.60|
|Public Operating & Capital||9.73||7.13||7.53||7.64|
|Internal Audited Operating & Capital||6.32||7.13||3.73||5.02|
|Discrepancy b/t Public & Internal O&C||3.41||0||3.80||2.62|
While there was no discrepancy between what EPSO reported to the public for total PST money spent in each year, there was wide variance in what it reported to the public for its O&C expenditures each year compared to what it accounted for internally. The only year the two figures matched was 2014.
Why did EPSO report to the public that it spent more PST money in O&C in 2013, 2015, and 2016 than its internal audited spreadsheets show?
What happened to the excess money?
That’s nearly $10 million unaccounted for, so where is it? Is this a case of sloppy bookkeeping and/or reporting or is it something worse?
On another note, if a taxpayer wanted to access simple budget data, such as the balance sheets I obtained from CORA, where does he go? We cannot find any public links on the EPSO website to provide even the most basic level of accountability and transparency.
There are documents to be found; however, six pages in total, but a taxpayer must know the specific, arcane URL for where to find them. We discovered it handwritten at the top of page 12 of the CORA package. It’s a long string, as follows: www.epcsheriffsoffice.com/sites/default/files/resources/resources/PST_WEB_2.pdf
Does this pass the accountability and transparency test? Or does it have the feel of being intentionally hard-to-find in order to obscure accountability? You decide.
Sheriff’s ‘Savings Account’
During a presentation to the Sunrise Republican Women’s Group on Jan 27, 2018, the incumbent Sheriff commented that he’s underspent for a few years in a row and that he’s held the savings in abeyance for some future purpose (he hinted at a jailhouse repair slush fund, possibly $2.5 million in that alone). The total in this ‘savings account’ is either $4 million or $6.5 million depending on how one interprets his comments.
That raises a host of questions.
- Is the Sheriff authorized by law to carry a budget surplus from one fiscal year over to the next?
- Can the Sheriff legally use a surplus for jailhouse repairs (wouldn’t that have to come from normal budgeting processes)?
- Shouldn’t budget excesses result in a refund to taxpayers?
- Is this PST money, the general fund, or a mix of both?
- Does this square with TABOR or is it in violation?
- Have the surpluses been reported to the Board of County Commissioners?
- If EPSO has a surplus, why does the Sheriff regularly ask for additional funding from BoCC?
- If EPSO has a surplus, why didn’t all EPSO employees get pay raises this year instead of just the upper ranks?
- If EPSO has a surplus, why has the Sheriff had to restrict overtime pay for employees to the point that some members of his investigations division threatened to quit?
- If EPSO has a surplus, why are there fewer deputies on patrol today than there were before PST was in play?
I Will Provide Accountability and Transparency
This is not a new promise, and it’s Pledge #4 in my Contract with the County. When I become Sheriff, I will do the following:
- Take back control of the EPSO budget from the County
- Hire an auditing firm to do a detailed audit of the budget (the slush fund mentioned above is reason enough alone to use a fine tooth comb during the audit)
- If discrepancies are discovered, I’ll bring in the Department of Justice if needed
- Post the audit report on the public EPSO website with easy-to-find links
- Hire a professional comptroller to manage the entire budget process
- Take weekly budget briefings
- Post the same budget briefings on the public EPSO website with easy-to-find links
There’s a great deal more we’ve dissected from the CORA response, but to keep this from becoming a lengthy post, we’ll keep it confined to what’s here for now. We may revisit it again in the future, and we welcome public comment on other concerns or issues people may pluck from this.
Suffice it to say, we do not feel there is proper accountability and transparency over the Public Safety Tax money based upon the way our CORA response was handled and the information ultimately provided. We have some tough questions to wrestle with.
- Who should we believe, the county attorney who said the records were digital (and therefore, presumably, easy to produce), or the public affairs officer who said it would take 100+ hours and thousands of dollars to comply?
- Can anyone explain the $10 million deviation in PST money over the years?
- Where is that money now?
- Where’s the accountability?
- Where’s the transparency?
I don’t know about you, but it will be awfully tough to go back to the taxpayers in 2019, before the current PST sunsets and request any more taxpayer patience and good will. If EPSO has not been a good steward of your money so far, why would you entrust it with more?
I won’t go into detail about it here and now, but we’re looking at managing the sunset of PST money in such a way that we hope we won’t need to ask for an extension. I am a Reagan conservative and a fiscal hawk, and the last thing I want to do is ask you to fund yet another tax increase. I will do everything I can to manage this process well and to avoid that. No guarantees yet, but we are working hard to devise a plan to do just that and keep people from losing their jobs.
If you want accountability and transparency — finally — as I do, you will never get it if you re-elect the same administration that created this obscurity in the first place.
I need your support in March. Please attend your precinct caucus on March 6th. Pledge to be a delegate for me and for GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo. He and I share many of the same ideas about government. Mr. Tancredo has endorsed me for Sheriff of El Paso County, so if you share his vision, then you share mine.