Representatives from the conservative Independence Institute, headquartered in Denver, will be coming to Basalt on Tuesday, May 21, to provide background information for citizens still trying to suss out the town’s complicated TABOR-based situation.
In late January, the Basalt town government admitted to the public that it had been running afoul of TABOR — the Colorado Taxpayers Bill of Rights — for the previous 10 years by raising the town’s mill levy — first established by the electorate in 1994 — without voter approval.
The long-running error came to light during the town’s annual budget process in November, but, since that process was too far along to make any major changes, the town set the 2019 mill levy despite its newly unearthed TABOR concerns.
Two public meetings on the subject were held in February.
Shortly thereafter, the town government decided to circulate a community survey, which was designed to a large extent to gauge whether to ask Basalt voters to forgive what many people in town consider a debt — estimated to total about $2 million — owed to an overcharged citizenry.
(TABOR contains a four-year “statute of limitations.”)
To the seeming surprise of many Basalt governmental officials, results of the survey, released in late April, revealed that a majority of the 200 or so respondents (of about 1,700 surveys mailed out) want the town to refund the money.
In late February, Basalt resident Carol Hawk, who had grown weary that all the pertinent skinny had been coming from the entity that had admitted to violating the terms of TABOR — the town government — decided to do some digging.
“I contacted the Colorado Municipal League, and they put me in contact with the Independence Institute and the TABOR Foundation,” Hawk said. “They were very helpful and offered several alternatives for citizens to deal with this situation. I was told no one polices TABOR. It is up to the governmental entities to police themselves. I was really surprised.
“I have asked representatives from the Independence Institute to come up to Basalt and help us better understand TABOR and potential ways to fix the current situation facing Basalt taxpayers,” she continued.
Though he does not have problems per se with the notion of an outside entity coming to town, Basalt Town Council member Auden Schendler does not speak highly of the Independence Institute.
“The Independence Institute is basically committed to the politics of ‘me versus us,’” Schendler said. “It’s kind of the modern zeitgeist, which goes against the cooperation that made the West and the United States great. Basically, it’s a symptom of society forgetting how we all got here, in part because we’ve been willing to pay taxes to achieve common goals. So I’m not a fan. But it’s fine to have different viewpoints. Obviously, it’s important to understand the context though.”
Hawk — a politically active citizen who has served on several boards and who ran unsuccessfully for Basalt Town Council in 2018 — wants to make it perfectly clear that she is not “anti-Basalt.”
“I am just very concerned that the TABOR controversy will end up getting swept under the rug by the town government,” she said. “I am not looking to bankrupt the town I have called home for many years. But the town made a mistake and they need to admit it and fix it. I figure that I have been overcharged about $1,000 the last four years. That’s a lot of money to my family. If the town owes us that much money, how much do they owe City Market and Whole Foods?”
Hawk is agitated by the fact that the town government has been floating a dire fiscal scenario, one in which, if they are required to return that $2 million to its citizens, major cuts to town services will ensue.
She is also miffed that the town will likely hold an election in November asking Basalt residents to forgive that $2 million overcharge. If a TABOR-specific election is indeed held in November, it will likely include an additional request to raise the town’s mill levy.
“They have been playing the card of needing to cut services if they have to refund the money,” she said. “I don’t like that. Sales tax revenue has skyrocketed during the same time frame as the TABOR overcharge. But the town has taken on more debt. They have the money.
“I am having trouble digesting a forgiveness vote,” Hawk continued. “I fear a simple vote to raise the mill levy without any acknowledgement/accountability of the mistake made will potentially fail [with the electorate] and then town is in bigger trouble. There are other options. A refund could be made over multiple years.”
Schendler sees things a bit differently.
“The town will have to do two things here, probably with a vote: one is to reaffirm the 1994 mill levy cap and allow the town to toggle it up and down below that cap,” he said. “It’s just housekeeping and reaffirming the status quo. The second is to determine whether to effectively liquidate two-thirds of our reserves. If we chose to do that, it would be in the face of the risk of mudslides, on the heels of a winter when our roads got trashed and need to be repaired, a potential recession in 2020 or ’21 and other unknowns, which is why communities have reserves. And the rationale would be what exactly? That somehow multiple councils over many years were misguided in keeping the mill levy under the ’94 rate? Doesn’t make a whole lotta sense to me.”
Hawk said there is a distinct possibility that a group of Basalt citizens might opt to put a countermeasure on the November ballot — one that directs that town to refund that $2 million.
“If there is enough interest, Basalt taxpayers could put together a citizen-initiated ballot question with another possible solution if the town cannot come up with a palatable solution,” she said. “In order to do that, we need to pay attention to town’s discussions on solutions and be prepared to meet deadlines for a citizen-initiated ballot question.”
Hawk added that one of the reasons she is bringing the Independence Institute to town next week is to gain enough information to determine whether to get the ball rolling on a citizen-initiated ballot.
“We need to know, first, if it’s a good idea and, second, what we would need to do,” she said. “We don’t have much time, if that’s the route we decide to go.”
Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said that the town has not been sitting on its hands vis-à-vis its TABOR conundrum.
“There has been a lot of progress on the TABOR issue since it was first discovered,” Mahoney said. “The town has continued to be very transparent in its approach to disseminating information. This includes providing an opportunity for the public to let the town know how they are feeling about the issue. Our next step is to put out more information on the town’s budget which should be mailed out in the next few weeks.
“An election will be the decision of the town council and will likely not happen until later in the summer,” he continued. “The deadline to certify language to the counties for a coordinated election is in early September.”
Mahoney said he has no issues with next week’s presentation by the Independence Institute.
“I think that the more people know, the better off they will be in forming a personal decision around this issue,” he said.
The presentation by the Independence Institute will take place Tuesday, May 21, 5-6:30 p.m. at the Basalt Regional Library.