County considering asking to keep grants from state

Mesa County commissioners are considering asking voters to allow the county to obtain state grants without bumping up against — or over — revenue limits established under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

The TABOR-sensitive nature of state grants in Mesa County has discouraged the commission in some cases from seeking grants, such as when the commission last year pointedly declined to seek a state grant to pass through $5 million in state funds for expansion of Mind Springs Health’s psychiatric hospital in Grand Junction. Acceptance of the grant could have forced the commission to refund money from the already strapped general fund.

Commissioners are asking for public comment on whether and how to proceed with a ballot question, which they expect to consider in August for the November ballot.

It’s a difficult question for a “TABOR lover” such as herself, Commissioner Rose Pugliese said during a meeting with The Daily Sentinel editorial board on Monday.

Keeping the county’s TABOR cap on state grants keeps money from returning to the county in which it was generated, Pugliese said.

“It makes no sense that our taxpayer money is going to Denver and not coming home,” Pugliese said.

Asking voters to allow the county to accept state grants is within the spirit of TABOR, Commissioner Scott McInnis said, noting that nearly every other Colorado county has lifted the state grant provision that would otherwise prevent them from accepting such funds.

Using state grants could free up money that now is spent from the general fund, and that in turn has reduced the amount of money the county keeps on hand, Commissioner John Justman said.

The county budget is based on a small fund balance, or reserve, of about $13 million.

“We need a larger fund balance to cushion” against the vagaries of the economy, Justman said.

Any question the commission puts to the voters will begin by saying “without increasing taxes,” Pugliese said.

While the county’s experience with West Springs Hospital is one of the most visible of the issues surrounding the TABOR cap, Pugliese said she first realized the problems it was causing when the Buckskin Road out of Collbran on Grand Mesa collapsed three years ago.

The county obtained a state grant to fix the road, which is now open, but other capital projects that were in line to be built had to be pushed back, Pugliese said.

Lifting the cap to allow state grants might result in one-time increases in county employment to deal with specific projects, but won’t result in growing government on a permanent basis, McInnis said.

The county could cooperate with nonprofit organizations that need only the county’s cooperation to obtain state grants if the cap is lifted, Pugliese said.

“I think our nonprofit community will be the biggest advocates” for a ballot measure that could allow them to pursue funding for parks and other services, Pugliese said.

Joe Higgins, formerly of Mesa County Partners Inc., and Carol Skubic, who served on the Mind Springs board, are to head the committee that would support the ballot measure should the commission place it on the ballot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *