Controversial Mill Levy Freeze to Go Before State Supreme Court

By: Tim Ciesco Email
By: Tim Ciesco Email

A controversial law that some say illegally raised property taxes was recently ruled unconstitutional. Now that law is making its way to the State Supreme Court.

Last year, Governor Bill Ritter signed Senate Bill 199, to help put hundreds of millions of tax dollars into the hands of local school districts. The law put a freeze on the mill levy used to determine property taxes, leaving many concerned.

To calculate your property taxes, the government multiplies your property value by the mill levy. Normally, when property values go up, like they are here in Mesa County, the mill levy is supposed to go down. But freeze the mill levy, and rising property values lead to increased property taxes.

In Colorado it is illegal to raise taxes without a vote of the people, which is exactly what the Mesa County commissioners say the state government did, and which is exactly why they filed a lawsuit against them.

"We felt it was important for a county government to step up and say this is unconstitutional," said Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland.

Two weeks ago, a Colorado District Court agreed with them. Richard Westfall, the attorney how represented the commissioners in the suit, says the ruling is a big win for Mesa County taxpayers.

"By taking this action, if we're eventually held up in the Supreme Court, we're talking about a return of 8 million dollars this fiscal year alone that was wrongly collected from only Mesa County taxpayers," said Westfall.

But supporters of the proposal, like State Representative Bernie Buescher, say the ruling is a huge loss for state schools. He says if the ruling stands, 25,000 kids statewide won't get to attend full day kindergarten, schools could not hire the counselors they need, and 50,000 children would go without S-CHIP coverage.

"There are very important things that are at risk should the Supreme Court decide that the bill is unconstitutional," said Buescher.

Consequences, he says, that could be avoided because the law is constitutional. He says Colorado law limits the amount of property tax dollars a school district can collect. In 1999, Mesa County as well as 173 other school districts voted to let school districts collect extra money over that limit. In other words, he says, the people did voted to let the government do exactly what this law does.

"I believe that the elections that were held in 174 out of the 176 school districts should be de–bruced, should be given effect," said Buescher.

Opponents of the law disagree.

"There's no way that the voters in 1999 approved a change in their taxes that took place in 2007," said Westfall.

The law now makes its way to the State Supreme Court where Mesa County Commissioners say they're confident they can win again.

"We look forward to taking it to the Supreme Court," said Rowland. "We believe the facts alone will win this case for us."

Westfall says he is working with the governor's lawyers to get this case before the State Supreme Court by November of this year.


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