A looming budget cut at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office that could have a dire impact on jail operations may trigger a larger discussion about whether TABOR, the Colorado law that limits the growth of government spending, needs to be tamed in this county of nearly 600,000.
In an unusual move, the sheriff’s office Tuesday issued a press release saying that a recent directive from the county that all departments cut 7 percent from their budgets next year could result in a 400- to 600-bed reduction in jail capacity.
All told, the sheriff’s office said the cuts could lead to an “almost $10 million decrease to the JCSO’s 2020 budget.”
Sheriff Jeff Shrader told The Denver Post on Wednesday that such a hit could mean the early release of prisoners or the need to craft new policies on when and how to incarcerate offenders.
“I have failed to see a prioritization of what is the primary function of government — to keep people safe,” Shrader said. “There have been a lot of sleepless nights. I have to press the commissioners.”
Newly elected Commissioner Lesley Dahlkemper said she and her colleagues on the board “share the sheriff’s concerns about public safety” but that TABOR, or the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, has effectively tied the county’s hands when it comes to adequately funding operations.
That’s because TABOR, a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1992, says state and local governments in Colorado have to return all tax revenues they collect above an amount set by a formula that gets calculated each year using population plus inflation.
Jefferson County has hit the TABOR cap each of the last four years, and therefore had to return $111 million to taxpayers, according to Holly Bjorklund, the county’s director of Strategy, Innovation & Finance.
That’s money that could have gone toward public safety, roads, mental healthcare and wildfire protection, the county says. Bjorklund said the county needs to trim its $223 general fund budget by $16.1 million or risk excessively drawing down its reserve account.
“TABOR is very impactful to the budget,” she said.
Dahlkemper said it may be time to consider a TABOR override election in Jefferson County, which would allow the county to hang on to excess tax collections. According to a tally from Colorado Counties Inc., Jefferson County is one of the last in the state that has not yet “de-Bruced” in any substantial way, a term derived from the name of TABOR’s author, Douglas Bruce.
“A lot of counties moved early on this after TABOR was enacted,” Dahlkemper said.
Jefferson County will hold a telephone town hall with commissioners at 6:30 p.m. May 8 to solicit public input on the county’s budget shortfall.
TABOR has been a controversial part of Colorado law for decades, with numerous attempts by its opponents to defang it, alter it or end it both at the legislature and in court. In the current legislative session, there are bills moving through the Democratic-controlled General Assembly that would ask voters if they want to forgo certain tax refunds and direct the state to spend those dollars on education and transportation.
Jon Caldara, president of the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute and a TABOR defender, said Jefferson County commissioners should work with the revenues they have and prioritize what is important.
“Elected officials hate doing their jobs, and their job is to set priorities,” said Caldara, who writes for The Denver Post’s opinion section. “If the priority is the sheriff’s office over another program, then that is the way to do it.”
Making tough choices, Caldara said, is “the price of leadership” and leads to greater innovation in government.
“The path of least resistance for government is to increase your taxes,” he said.
Ted Mink, who heads the County Sheriffs of Colorado and served as a Jefferson County sheriff for years, said he hasn’t seen a sheriff publicly put out a press release to call attention to budgetary constraints. It could indicate just how serious the situation is, he said.
Cities and towns in Jefferson County should be paying attention, Mink said, since they rely on the sheriff’s office to house the people they arrest. Bottom line, he said, Jefferson County needs to make public safety its highest priority no matter whether it holds a de-Brucing election or not.
Shrader said it’s all about agreeing on what the crucial role of county government is and making sure that gets the support it needs.
“You have to have a conversation about prioritization before you have the conversation about de-Brucing,” the sheriff said.
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