A tax by any other name …

A tax by any other name …

Mesa County District Judge Lance Timbreza delivered a solid favor to taxpayers. He recently ruled against the Grand Valley Drainage District stating that the taxing body illegally collected revenue for its stormwater drainage system. The district bypassed restrictions established by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights by calling its rent-seeking activities a “fee” rather than a “tax.”

More importantly, Timbreza’s decision serves as a great precedent to make certain that other governmental entities don’t willfully sidestep the Colorado Constitution. The GVDD case is simply a microcosm of a larger pattern occurring across the state, where various taxing authorities are leveraging the exact same doublespeak as a loophole to generate more revenue without voter approval.

For taxpayers, this was nothing more than a small victory against a Leviathan-sized foe.

Which is why I was surprised by the editorial staff of The Daily Sentinel criticizing the GVDD’s decision not to appeal the judgment. The editorial called it a “bad decision” and suggested that “calling this a victory for property owners… seems premature.”

The editorial suggests that the need for stormwater drainage does not necessarily go away, which is true. The piece continues, “Good luck trying to get the public to buy into a taxing scheme after the county and the chamber fought like hell to call a fee to address the problem of a tax.”

But that’s the whole point! Trust in government is at an all-time low for a reason: Many of these institutions have simply not earned the trust of their tax base. Constantly moving the goal posts only reinforces this mistrust.

Such deceitful tactics used to skirt TABOR have been in circulation for far too long.

Many Coloradans have firsthand experience with these fee-and-spend shenanigans in 2009 with the passing of the Funding Advancements for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery Act (FASTER). This monstrous piece of legislation jacked up statewide fees on car registrations and created new “enterprise funds” — all “without raising taxes” as its proponents cheered. As a result of FASTER, the state of Colorado created a $10 million-a-year cash cow that was supposed to cover the cost of our road and infrastructure needs.

It turns out that, despite the influx in revenue, FASTER wasn’t enough. Our roads are still a mess and — surprise, surprise — the state of Colorado still doesn’t have enough money to fix them.

And this double whammy of linguistic gymnastics and fiscal mismanagement is not just limited to the Colorado state capitol; it is happening in small communities throughout Colorado.

Take my hometown of Delta, for example. Currently, my town is upside down when it comes to managing the books of our municipal golf course. Since its opened in 2001, Devil’s Thumb has never broke even, let alone turned a profit. Rather than going to the voters to increase the sales tax that underfunds the golf course, staff and council have simply relied upon the fee structure of other public funds to make up the difference. To cover the gap, the city of Delta has transferred more than $12 million from other various public utility funds, such as sewer, capital improvements, and water. The expensive golfing habits of the few are being subsidized by the monthly city bills of the many.

The value of Timbreza’s judgment is twofold. One, it serves as a warning to all taxing entities that their days of verbal trickery are numbered. Second, let this be a rallying cry for Colorado taxpayers to take back our dwindling purchasing power that continues to be robbed with each new tax or fee or whatever you want to call it.

Timbreza offers us a modern reinterpretation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which once lamented that “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Thanks to Timbreza and TABOR, a tax by any other name is still a damn tax.

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