The long-awaited effort to persuade voters to let the City keep people’s TABOR-mandated refunds has finally begun. Although it’s been on the establishment’s to-do list for years, they have avoided putting it on the ballot for fear of a voter backlash. However, this year’s refund has gotten too large to pass up. With the recent hail storms, there was a lot of fees and taxes paid by insurance companies to repair damaged property. As a result the excess of revenues over the permitted government spending limit (the previous year’s spending plus inflation plus a growth factor) has tripled to over $12.5 million dollars.
Their problem is the $12.5 million dollars divided by Lakewood’s population of 150,000 averages out to almost $85 for every man, woman and child. For a family of four, this one-year refund amounts to some serious money. Furthermore, this is the amount for just one year – 2017. In future years additional refunds could add up to even more disposable income for the average family.
Technically it is illegal for the City to spend tax dollars to influence voters on a ballot issue. To get around this prohibition, City Council won’t actually put the de-TABOR issue on the ballot until the last minute; in this case, the August 27 Council meeting. That way the City can argue their PR efforts are not violating the law because technically there is no ballot issue yet.
As for the moral issue of using tax money to influence votes, the City’s PR people argue they are only “providing information” (on the benefits of de-TABOR) and asking for input (on what free stuff people would like to get with other people’s tax refunds). Although they try not to be obvious about it, the bias in the City’s public outreach efforts (website, Looking at Lakewood newsletter, flyers, etc.) are pretty plain to see. For example, they threw out some proven selling points (extra money for police, parks, roads, etc.) and implied everyone will get some of the goodies. Then they did a “survey” that they claim is only a hypothetical exercise about what sort of goodies people would like IF the City gets to keep the money.
But the City is not providing any balanced “information” or “surveys” about the relative advantages of people keeping their refunds. For example, there was no “survey” as to how people would like to receive their refund or how they would spend their money on their families. The issue of how to distribute the refunds is a good example of how the facts are manipulated. There are several ways for the City to get people’s refunds to them. Besides the obvious “write a check” to everyone, in the past smaller refunds were paid out in the form of credit against people’s storm water fee (about $65 per household). In addition, refunds have been given in the form of lower property tax billings or a combination of methods. There are also other possible methods – credit on phone bills, utility bills and various other fees the City charges. However, the PR focused on only one possible method – credit on property taxes with the hope that this would motivate renters.
Another way the City is able to use taxes to help the election campaign is to provide free meeting space for the lobbying groups hoping to get a piece of the new money. An example is the bike lobby. Their lobbying group, the Bicycle Advisory Group, is hoping some of the refund money designated for “quality transportation options” will go to bike paths rather than traditional street maintenance. The group has a series of videos selling the concept of a “TABOR time out”. A source at the City leaked the following memo (see attachment) from the group showing the group is allowed to use city facilities to hold their meetings, including planning for the election campaign.