Taxpayer group sues #water district over mill levy increase: Plaintiffs claim Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District is in violation of state’s #TABOR amendment — The #FortMorgan Times

Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District boundary map.

From The Fort Morgan Times (Jeff Rice):

A Colorado taxpayer group has filed a class action lawsuit in the 13th Judicial District Court in Logan County to try to overturn a mill levy increase by the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District.

The Public Trust Institute, a Colorado-based public interest law firm, and the National Taxpayers Union Foundation of Washington, D.C., filed the lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of an ad hoc group of taxpayers in Logan, Morgan, Sedgwick and Washington counties. Jim Aranci of Crook, Charles Miller, Jack Darnell and William Lauck of Morgan County and Curtis Werner of Merino are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Besides the water district, the defendants include the county clerks of the four counties, who collected the taxes and handed the funds over to the district.

At issue is the interpretation of a 1996 ballot question in which the LSPWCD “de-Bruced,” or excused itself, as the result of a public vote, from provisions of the TABOR amendment. In that ballot question, the district stated it would seek a public vote in order to raise taxes.

But other wording in that ballot question, and the district’s original mill levy allowance when it was formed in 1964, are at the crux of the conflict. When it was formed, the water conservancy district was allowed by state statute to levy up to 1 mill on property within the district, which includes parts or all of the four counties. The district’s board of directors had previously only asked for 0.5 mill because that was all that was needed.

At the end of 2019, however, the district’s board decided to raise the levy to the statutorily allowed 1 mill for 2020 to, among other things, help fund preparatory work on a project that eventually will help supply both the district and the City of Parker extra water from the lower reaches of the South Platte River. That mill levy was certified by county commissioners in the four counties at that time, and the district began collecting the tax revenues in 2020.

As the district board was planning its 2021 budget in December of 2020, however, a group of taxpayers objected, pointing to the 1996 ballot measure’s final sentence. It reads, “No local tax rate or property mill levy shall be increased at any time, nor shall any new tax be imposed without the prior approval of the voters of the LSPWCD.”

Jim Aranci, a former chairman of the district’s board, said Wednesday that the wording of that 1996 de-Brucing question was quite clear…

Joe Frank, general manager of the conservancy district, said Friday he’d heard rumors of a lawsuit being filed, but was not at liberty to discuss the issue further. He did, however, reaffirm the board’s position that the increase was thoroughly researched in 2019 before it was instituted for the 2020 budget year. He said the district’s legal counsel pointed to other wording in the de-Brucing ballot question: That the district could “utilize the full proceeds and revenues received from every source whatever, without limit.” And those “full proceeds and revenues” included the remaining half-mill originally allowed by statute but never used. In other words, the public vote would only be needed if the district wanted to exceed its original allowance of 1 mill.

Frank reiterated Friday that the board did not take the step lightly, and spent a lot of resources getting the right answers to its questions…

The water district has still been allowed to collect its 1 mill levy, since it was certified for the 2020 budget year. According to Colorado Revised Statute 39-1-111 (3) “If the board of county commissioners … fails to certify such levies to the assessor, it is the duty of the assessor, upon direction of the division of local government, to extend the levies of the previous year …”

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