Jeffco commissioners on budget situation

Column by Casey Tighe, Libby Szabo and Lesley Dahlkemper
Posted 2/25/20

Jefferson County has a reputation as a wonderful place for all to thrive. Taxpayer dollars allow the county to deliver vital services. But as our population grows, so does demand for public safety, …

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Jeffco commissioners on budget situation

Posted

Jefferson County has a reputation as a wonderful place for all to thrive. Taxpayer dollars allow the county to deliver vital services. But as our population grows, so does demand for public safety, roads, public health and other essential county services.

You’ve undoubtedly seen headlines lately about our financial realities. You may also wonder: how, in a strong economy, did we get to this point?

Let’s do the numbers

A significant portion of the county’s services and programs are paid for by the General Fund, which is largely funded by property tax revenue and totals approximately $217 million in 2020. The General Fund makes up about one-third of the overall $605 million countywide budget. The other two-thirds represents dedicated funds that can only be used for specific purposes. The county cannot use dedicated funds to address the $16.1 million in 2020 budget cuts or additional reductions in 2021 or beyond.

How did we get here?

In the past, commissioners used the county’s General Fund reserves to avoid cuts and address the rising cost of services. However, this is no longer an option. Jeffco’s “rainy day fund” has reached its minimum threshold — or two months of operating costs.

We’re often asked why the county is facing budget challenges when property values have increased. Don’t those property taxes provide more dollars for county services? For every dollar the county collects in property taxes, only 24 cents goes to the county to provide services. The remaining 76 cents is distributed to public schools, special districts and cities.

What’s more, the amount of property tax revenue the county is allowed to collect is limited by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR. TABOR restricts revenue growth for counties using a formula based on: the value of new construction in the county; and statewide inflation, measured by the Consumer Price Index. But the county’s formula does not account for population growth – unlike the state’s TABOR formula. The result: county tax revenues have not grown as fast as the demand or the increased cost for county services.

Most Colorado counties have successfully sought relief from TABOR revenue limits. Jeffco is one of only two counties that has not. That means any surplus dollars above the county’s TABOR cap are refunded to taxpayers. Did you know that even state grants for public safety, parks, roads, housing and mental health count against our TABOR cap? This year, the county treasurer estimates that amount will be approximately $41 million.

Last November, Jeffco voters chose not to approve ballot measure 1A, which would have temporarily lifted the TABOR cap on tax revenue and helped the county avoid painful budget cuts. We respect their decision and have begun to implement those cuts.

Looking Ahead to 2021

More tough decisions are ahead as we look at the continuing financial challenge facing all county departments. We’ll continue to collaborate with other elected county officials and department leaders to identify further reductions in their 2021 budgets.

We’ll keep our mission to promote the safety, health and well-being and stewardship of resources of the entire Jefferson County community front and center. We’ll also focus on those areas only government can do and continue to serve as strong fiscal stewards of taxpayer dollars, including maintaining our triple A bond rating and working with our national award-winning financial staff to ensure transparency and accountability.

Above all, we will work closely with our community to make sure your priorities are reflected to the best of our ability in our decision making. Together, we’re confident we’ll find the best path forward for Jeffco!

For more information about the budget, please visit www.jeffco.us. or contact us at commish@jeffco.us.

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