OPINION: County fund reserves aren’t being reinvested enough

JoAnn Kalenak, Senior Blogger, DCCR — For the past several years, I’ve studied Delta County’s budget and audits trying to understand how our citizens are taxed and how our commissioners choose to spend — or not spend — our money. I’ve struggled with large reserves that have accumulated over more than a decade while county services are either absent or minimal.

This year’s fiscal journey led me to wonder how the large reserves — $20.5 million in 2018 — squares with TABOR since that law essentially limits government growth by putting a cap on the tax dollars that can be collected, reserved and spent. The answer, at least in part, is that Delta County voters waved TABOR laws for sales tax and non-federal grants way back in 1995, allowing the county to “collect, retain and expend the full proceeds of the county’s current 2% sales tax.” (This same language, by the way, is being used in the upcoming 1% sales tax increase ballot measure commonly known as the “Back the Badge” initiative.)

So, for almost 25 years, Delta County has been free to keep all sales tax revenue it has collected, which means those funds are not included in their TABOR cap calculation with excesses refunded to citizens. In other words, our county, except for property tax, is essentially “de-bruced,” a term coined from TABOR’s biggest promoter, Douglas Bruce.

I agree that TABOR should be repealed — a statewide ballot question for 2019 — because I believe, for most governments in Colorado, the law has seriously struggled budgeting for schools, transportation and other desperately needed services. I do have a problem, however, with government hoarding funds under the auspices of impending doom or future projects that never really happen.

In a recent KVNF interview, Commissioner Don Suppes told listeners that he wished the county reserves were even larger — they are currently 52% of all allocations. He cited the crash of 2008 stating, “I’m glad we had those reserves then.” The problem with his statement is that the county didn’t impact those reserves but rather, then County Administrator Susan Hansen, choose to tighten the existing budget and froze staff wages.

Another frequently used reasoning by county officials for the high reserves is that the funds “are all dedicated to a project, or restricted by the county, the voters, or the state.” According to the 2018 audit, only $3 million is actually restricted and the remainder — $18.7 million — can be used “to meet the government’s ongoing obligations to citizens and creditors.” Yes, the money can be found spread across the county’s 19 fund accounts and those same funds can be found sitting there year-after-year.

The Conservation Trust Fund account, for example, has maintained a reserve balance of $350,000-to-$500,000 for almost two decades — all while the county struggles with recreation infrastructure like the elimination of two baseball fields at the county fairgrounds and replacing them with a rarely used frisbee golf course because it was cheaper to maintain. (Thank you to Home Plate for working with the North Fork Park and Recreation Department to rebuild the ball parks next to the pool in Hotchkiss.)

Voters said “yes” back in 1995 to keeping excess sales tax funds because they assumed the money would come back to them in services and amenities — not be stashed and accumulated in bank accounts earning little-to-no interest.