County trims mill levy, eyes fee

Property owners got an early Christmas gift – or perhaps more of a frugal stocking stuffer – on Dec. 15 when the Montezuma County Commission voted unanimously to cut the mill levy for the Law Enforcement Authority from 1.45 to 1.20 mills.

The tax, which is levied only on properties in the unincorporated portions of the county, was approved by voters in 2007 after being promoted by then-Sheriff Gerald Wallace as a means of providing more patrolling in the remote areas of the sprawling county and raises for underpaid deputies.

Under Colorado’s TABOR law, tax hikes by any government entity must be approved by voters, but can be reduced through board action alone. And funds that grow beyond their intended purpose must be refunded to the voters under TABOR unless an exception, commonly known as “de-Brucing,” is included in the legislation when passed.

In this case, the LEA did include a “de- Brucing” measure, according to county attorney John Baxter, which meant the county got to keep any funds accumulating from the tax.

Specifically, the funds were to be used to acquire five patrol vehicles and hire more deputies for under-patrolled areas and to give all certified deputies – Montezuma County’s are among the lowest-paid in the state – raises to make their salaries more equitable.

When it was passed, the tax was expected to generate some $500,000 annually and Wallace kept the uses of the monies strictly separate from the overall department budget.

But over time, and with changes in sheriffs, the LEA funds became more a part of the overall budget. This became an issue early in 2014, when Sheriff Dennis Spruell asked the commissioners (who have separate roles overseeing and approving the spending of the LEA funds) for permission to use LEA money to help pay for a five-year leasing arrangement to acquire 18 new patrol vehicles. After reviewing the ordinance, Baxter said the wording was broad enough to cover the use of the funds for most any legitimate purpose.

However, the LEA fund has, in the words of Commissioner Larry Don Suckla, “ballooned” to become a larger part of the annual sheriff ’s budget than originally foreseen, growing from about $380,000 its first year to about $800,000 last year, largely because of increases in property values.

The reduction is expected to shave about $200,000 from the fund annually.

The reduction for the average taxpayer won’t be much – about $2 on a $100,000 property, according to Assessor Scott Davis – but the move can be seen as more symbolic, possibly a sign of things to come.

For instance, the commission has discussed at length reducing and/or eliminating the road-impact fee levied on new construction – from single-family units to commercial buildings and subdivisions, with the fee varying according to how far the buildings are from a state highway. The idea is that growth generates traffic, and the one-time fee contributes to road maintenance.

However, Suckla cited several other counties that impose no such fee. He has repeatedly pointed out that all new construction adds to the county’s property-tax revenues.

The LEA fund will still collect enough revenue to fulfill its original intent, and to help cover the annual payment on the vehicle lease agreement, the commissioners said.

Commission Chairman Keenan Ertel said he wanted “to make sure the sheriff is providing five more deputies and vehicles patrolling the more-remote parts of the county.

“I see a lot of deputies on state highways more than on the county roads.,” Ertel said. “I want to see [the LEA funds] used for more patrolling on the unincorporated parts of the county and I’m not sure that’s being done.”

Steve Nowlin, who will take over as sheriff in mid-January, said in a phone interview that while there had been discussion of the LEA fund during a meeting between him and the commissioners last February, he had had no further conversation about cutting back the fund since then, and was unaware of the reduction in the LEA tax until contacted by the Free Press.

“They said [in February] they would be making some type of decision [regarding the LEA], but they never talked to me directly,” Nowlin said. “I had told them back in February that it just needed to be managed right, but it should never go away.

“[The LEA] pays for five deputies’ salaries plus 30 percent of the certified officers’ salaries,” Nowlin said, “It wasn’t managed right – I agree with that completely, but that wasn’t me. The bottom line is that I’ll just have to work with whatever that [LEA revenue] is – and that’s okay.”

On a tangential note, Nowlin said he would not have committed the sheriff ’s office to a five-year leasing deal for the 18 SUV-type vehicles that were delivered to the department earlier this year after Spruell urged the commissioners to approve the arrangement as the best solution to replacing an aging fleet.

“I would have never done that – we’re stuck with those 18 vehicles for five years,” Nowlin said. “How can I go and ask for any replacement vehicles when that’s already happened and we’re still paying for them?”

Suckla told the Free Press that even with the reduction, the LEA would still be taking in over $600,000, sufficient for its original intent. “There will still be enough money to do those things.”

Suckla said he’e like to see more patrolling on Road G through McElmo Canyon.

“There has been person after person killed on McElmo Road,” he said. “That is an extremely dangerous road and we need more patrol there.” Just last month, two people died and others were seriously injured in a two-car alcohol-related collision on CR G.

“I don’t know Steve [Nowlin] at all and I’d hate to start off on the wrong foot with the man,” Suckla said, “but the way I looked at it was there was $300,000 extra in the bank and it was going to continually add [that much] and so all we did was take away the extra money.

“It started off with a good intent, but they didn’t realize it was going to balloon to how much it has.”

The commissioners all expressed support for the deputies. Suckla said, “I want the patrolmen to have more money if they deserve it,” and Commissioner Steve Chappell pointed out that criminals would run rampant if it weren’t for the officers who put their lives on the line every day.

However, in an interview, Chappell remembered the February discussion with Nowlin differently than Nowlin did. “When he was running he made a political point to us in a meeting – we were talking about the LEA fund and how it was building up an amount of savings and he made the statement that he didn’t need the LEA fund in his budget,” Chappell chuckled. “He can’t deny that and if he does he has three commissioners and a lawyer [as witnesses] to his statement.”

But Chappell added, “We’re fine with Nowlin and I’m sure he’ll do a good job. There will be plenty of money with the mill levy that we’ve left there – the 1.2 mills – to make the payments on those cars.”

Still, Chappell expressed reservations about how much patrolling was being done in remote areas. “I’m 17 miles out – very seldom do I see a deputy, so if there are five cars out there, they are not very visible.’

From January 2015.