Hot Sheet

Should yesterday’s jail tax fund today’s transportation needs? DougCo voters won’t get a chance to say

Author: Dan Njegomir - June 15, 2017 - Updated: June 16, 2017

Traffic backs up on Interstate 25 approaching Castle Rock along a stretch of highway known as "The Gap," which is a top construction priority for the state. (Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation)Traffic backs up on Interstate 25 approaching Castle Rock along a stretch of highway known as “The Gap,” which is a top construction priority for the state. (Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation)

We put the question a bit differently earlier this week: Can a community spend too much on law enforcement when there are underfunded, competing needs?

Perhaps not — at least, for the two Douglas County commissioners who nixed a proposal by the commission’s third member late Wednesday to ask voters to shift some of the county sheriff’s generous revenue stream toward widening DougCo’s chronically congested stretch of Interstate 25. Now, their three votes are the only ones that will be cast on the idea.

Freshman County Commissioner Lora Thomas had wanted to go to the ballot with a plan to reconfigure a long-standing county sales tax that has poured funding into wide-ranging law-enforcement upgrades. A little over half of the revenue from the 0.43 percent Douglas County Justice Center Sales and Use Tax, approved by voters in 1995, would have gone to upgrade I-25 south of Castle Rock and improve other roads in the burgeoning county.

The county was a very different place when the tax was enacted — essentially, a vast expanse of scenic open space with then-sleepy county seat Castle Rock as its hub. In the decades of explosive growth since then, DougCo from Castle Rock north toward the county line has become a sprawling suburban flank of metro Denver.

That has put increasing demands on law enforcement as well as the regional transportation grid. Law enforcement has been able to keep up — to say the least — because of the dedicated sales tax. Transportation has fallen ever further behind.

And because of that same growth, which has fostered a booming retail sector that includes the likes of Park Meadows Mall, the sales tax is pumping far more revenue into the sheriff’s coffers than voters back in 1995 likely ever imagined possible. As Thomas pointed out in a fact sheet on the issue:

Since 1996, the Justice Center tax has raised over $360 million; over $26 million was raised in 2016 alone.  It has financed the Justice Center to include courtrooms, jail cells, a dispatch center and a state-of-the art coroner’s facility, the Highlands Ranch Sub-station, a jail infirmary, an employee parking garage, a driving track, a regional crime lab, an evidence warehouse, radios, radio towers, body cameras and cameras throughout the facility.  In fact, the last two courtrooms at the Justice Center were just finished but remain unused.  The mission of the Justice Center Sales Tax Fund has been accomplished.

In that light, Thomas’s proposal arguably sought to inject some balance into the county’s fiscal priorities.

Sheriff Tony Spurlock didn’t like the idea. He maintained that without the full revenue stream, he couldn’t ensure public safety, and he and his staff showed up to a two-day hearing before commissioners to make that point. So did a number of citizens who saw it the sheriff’s way and mobilized to turn out for the hearing.

It may be reasonable to assume the two commissioners who wound up voting with the sheriff Wednesday probably were inclined to see things his way, as well. One, David Weaver, is himself the immediate previous county sheriff; Spurlock was in fact his undersheriff before becoming sheriff. And the other commissioner, Roger Partridge, acknowledged in the course of the hearing he has two sons who work at the sheriff’s office.

No conflict in any of that, of course; it’s just politics. But it also may say a lot about an institutional mind-set: Law enforcement is sacrosanct; I-25 is the state’s problem.

So, maybe the outcome was inevitable.

Yet, is that the kind of political establishment that can look at the longer-term needs of a growing county in which law enforcement can’t always be the top priority?

Thomas, reached for comment, was philosophical: “While I’m very disappointed that the citizens in Douglas County won’t be allowed to vote on how their tax dollars are spent, I’ve been assured that fixing I-25 and our other county roads are a priority.”

Commuters certainly must hope so — whatever voters would have said if they’d had the chance.

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is a blogger and opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.