Let me be clear up front. I’m not advocating for or against an extension of the Public Safety Tax (PST). I am championing, however, open, honest, transparent, trustworthy, and accountable government. I don’t believe we have that right now.
In fact, I agree that we need to properly fund the Sheriff’s Office, but the money should be generated through the general fund — without a tax increase — and the solution made permanent.
But before the El Paso County Commissioners ask the public to consider yet another tax increase, they need to open the books and explain a few things.
‘Executive Session’ = ZERO Government Transparency
The El Paso County Commissioners recently held an ‘executive session’ to discuss an extension of the PST. An executive session means the public isn’t invited. Closed door. Smoke and mirrors. What does that remind you of?
How about the way the Democrat Congress passed Obamacare, at night, on Christmas Eve of 2009, while the country was sleeping?
The PST was a special sales tax approved by ballot measure in 2012 to fund primarily the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office (EPSO). It was designed to provide additional manpower mostly for patrol and the jail. A noble goal as proposed, but serious questions have lingered over what’s really happened with that money, considering EPSO manning is down in patrol and in the jail.
If the PST didn’t buy what the taxpayers voted for, then what purpose has it served and why should we trust government with more of it?
But I digress. Let’s get back to our ‘non-transparent’ county government.
Yes, our County Attorney and Commissioners met to talk about spending YOUR money, and you weren’t allowed at the table. Oh sure, as an article in the Colorado Springs Independent says, there will be public sessions to discuss the proposed extension. But why hold private ones in the first place? Ever?
The secret squirrel session was bad enough, but let’s peel back a few things that pop out from this story.
Will the Rate Increase?
The current sales tax rate is .23%, and it is due to sunset in 2020. In the original Indy story, it indicated the Commissioners were discussing an extension at the rate of .62%. Why? No explanation is given for such a dramatic increase (nearly 2.7 times higher than the current rate).
In an update to its story, the Indy indicates the Commissioners were discussing a permanent extension of the .23% rate.
Which is it? Maybe if the Commissioners held public meetings instead of governing in secrecy, then we – the people who write the checks they want to cash – wouldn’t have to demand answers.
But whether it’s a permanent tax at the current rate, or an extension at a higher rate, neither scenario makes much sense when one considers the Sheriff doesn’t spend all the money he currently gets from the PST.
Sheriff Has UNDERSPENT His Budget Several Years in a Row
From the CS Indy article, “In its first five years, the tax generated more than $100 million, and it’s been underspent most if not all of those years, according to annual reports available on the sheriff’s website.”
- If EPSO has UNDERSPENT the PST money each year, why would it need more? That question is even more significant if there’s any truth to the idea of raising the rate to .62%.
- What has happened to the surpluses the Sheriff’s Office claims it’s had nearly every year?
- Shouldn’t a revenue surplus generate a refund to the taxpayers?
- If the surplus has been spent by another county office, then which one, for what purpose, and was that spending legal and in compliance with the PST ballot requirements?
- Has the management of annual surpluses squared with TABOR?
Lack of Real Transparency and Accountability
There has never been a full public accounting of the revenue received and what it’s been spent on. The CS Indy notes this as well:
“It’s impossible to know how much was collected and spent under 1A based on Elder’s 2015 report, however, because all revenues are lumped together.”
I’m very familiar with this issue and I’ve sought – unsuccessfully – to obtain any level of detail in the accounting of PST monies. In fact, as I’ve written about in the past, the county wanted to charge me at least $3,000.00 to comply with my CORA request for this information.
In fact, the county and the Sheriff should supply this detail proactively, make it available with a few clicks on their public websites.
When government obfuscates, hides fact, dodges accountability, operates opaquely instead of transparently, then we have every reason to be cynical and untrusting.
A Better Solution: The General Fund
During my campaign, I often discussed this aspect of budgeting. The Sheriff’s Office has two primary streams of money. The traditional stream (pre-PST) is the general fund, revenue raised through normal taxation (property taxes primarily). That’s approximately $50 million annually. The PST generates an additional sum around $20 million each year.
When the PST was crafted, it was at a time when the economy nationwide had soured and the general fund locally was thinned out. It made sense then, but it was never meant to be permanent (hence the 8-year lifespan). But the problems the PST was designed to fix are still with us. If anything, crime is increasing due to a rise in population.
I have always advocated for a permanent solution to this permanent problem. That permanent solution ought to be the general fund.
We’ve seen a booming economy nationwide, and I would venture to say that El Paso County is among the fastest growing communities in the country. New homes, businesses, and jobs are springing up in our county on a regular basis. In fact, the growth is dizzying at times.
One of the sources of the morale problems I discovered in EPSO was the fact that people whose positions were coded under PST money faced job insecurity. It didn’t help that the Sheriff told a group of employees to count by threes to make an example of how uncertain their futures were.
If every employee’s position is funded through the general fund, then you remove this uncertainty and morale improves along with it.
We need a permanent fix to the manpower issues in EPSO, and that should come via the general fund. Before the County Commissioners ask for yet another sales tax increase, they must provide:
- Full, detailed, line-by-line accounting of every PST penny raised and spent since inception
- Explanation of why EPSO has underspent PST money and created surpluses
- Audit trail of where these surpluses have gone
- Justification for why more is needed when less has worked out well
Make no mistake, extending your current PST tax or making it permanent is a tax increase. Don’t let the inevitable political doublespeak or gobbledygook of government confuse you when it comes. An increase is an increase.
We need genuine conservatives in local government, people who would make President Reagan proud, and not ashamed of what our party has become. We have people in government with an ‘R’ next to their names, but if they promote tax increases, they are hardly Republican at all.
Never forget, what the County Commissioners want more of – taxes – is YOUR money. It does not belong to them. It belongs to you. Make them justify it. They work for US.