Like many Basalt residents, Carol Hawk had a lot of questions when news surfaced last January that the town of Basalt had run afoul of Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) statutes and might owe its citizens a refund of some of the property taxes it had collected over the last 10 years unless those citizens vote in November to allow the town to keep the money.
Among the things Hawk and other Basaltines wanted to know were: How much extra money was collected? (About $2 million.) How big would the refunds be? (Hawk calculated it at roughly $1,000 for the last decade on a home valued at $750,000 but cautioned people not to rely on that figure.) And what was to blame for the snafu?
“I honestly didn’t know where I stood on whether to take the refund or let the town keep it,” said Hawk, “and I didn’t understand the TABOR stuff at all.”
Looking for answers, Hawk started reaching out to various groups around the state and eventually found her way to the Independence Institute (slogan: “Think Freedom”), a Denver-based, Libertarian-leaning think tank with a mission “to empower individuals and to educate citizens, legislators and opinion makers about public policies that enhance personal and economic freedom.”
That connection brought one of the institute’s project coordinators, Kathleen Chandler, to town Tuesday night for a presentation on TABOR and taxes at the Basalt Regional Library. The event, organized by Hawk, drew an audience of about a dozen people who listened attentively to the complicated issues Chandler was helping to sort out.
The problem for the Town of Basalt is that TABOR, a state law passed in 1992, mandates that towns and other taxing entities have to allow their citizens to vote on any proposed tax increases. In 1992, Basalt’s property tax mill levy was set at a rate of 6.151 mills (that means property owners owe $6.15 for every $1,000 of their home’s assessed value). For the next 13 years, and for 15 of the next 17 years, the town lowered the mill levy rate, which it can do without voter approval.
However, since 2010, when the rate bottomed out at 2.56, the town has increased the mill levy almost every year without voter approval. So, even though the town’s 2019 operating mill levy rate of 5.957 is lower than it was in 1992, the town didn’t have the right to raise it higher than it was in 2009 without asking; 2.56 became the new limit. That has left Basalt and its citizens faced with the choice of forgiving the error or taking the refunds and having the town cut certain services, which it claims it will have to do.
Chandler left no doubt which side of the issue she favored. Her visual presentation began with a slide featuring the headline “Saving Colorado from becoming California” and a picture of the iconic “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign with the words “East California” spray-painted on it. And the gist of her message was that taxes are fine to provide necessary services, but it’s imperative that taxing entities ask for permission first. In Basalt’s case, she implored townsfolk to vote for the refund and then make the town ask to have it back.
“We’re not saying government can’t grow,” said Chandler, “but towns and taxing districts need to make the case to the people they represent that those taxes are necessary.”
The presentation explained TABOR (which Chandler only referred to as “your Taxpayer Bill of Rights”) and Referendum C, a 2005 statute that allows government to keep funds collected over TABOR limits instead of refunding them, and Chandler touched on Basalt’s particular situation. Mostly, however, she used the platform to encourage people to stay more involved in their local governments to keep them accountable for the decisions they make, whether it’s in regard to taxes or anything else. Without proper oversight (such as allowing Basalt to keep the money), noted Chandler, it only emboldens government to push its limits even further the next time.
“What is it saying if you give them a pass?” she asked.
Chandler’s arguments, though unabashedly one-sided, made quite a bit of sense, and TABOR, which often gets a bad rap from local and state politicians, is a hit with Coloradans who just read the plain, unbiased definition of it. One survey found that 71 percent of registered voters who read the text support it, and, Chandler claimed, it’s largely responsible for Colorado prospering as a low-tax state while high-tax states like California and New York suffer.
Of course, there are arguments to be made against TABOR and against Basaltines taking the refund, and it would probably behoove all of us to emulate Hawk and get better educated about those subjects, but for Tuesday night, at least, one person’s pro-TABOR (pro-freedom, if you believe her) message came across loud and clear.