2 Colorado counties and RTD use taxpayer dollars on political consultants to generate more tax dollars

Jeffco, Arapahoe, RTD use taxpayer dollars on political consultants to generate more tax dollars

As Coloradans brace for massive property tax spikes, some local governments are quietly laying the groundwork for ballot measures that would hike taxes even further, and a loophole in Colorado state law allows them to use your tax dollars to figure out how to get more of your tax dollars.

Under state law, a government entity can't spend more than $50 to support a measure after it's on the ballot, but there's no limit on what they can spend before it makes the ballot.

Natalie Menten, founder of Colorado Engaged, says the Jefferson County Board of County Commissioners is among those using the loophole to run political campaigns on the public's dime. A political activist, government watchdog and chief nemesis of the commissioners, Menten says they're plotting against their own constituents by paying a political consulting firm $340,000 of taxpayer money all because they want more money.

Natalie Menten, founder of Colorado Engaged CBS

Jeffco is one of the few counties where the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) is still intact, so commissioners need voter approval for any tax hike.

Menten says they're testing the waters.

"It's an abuse of their power and a misuse of taxpayer money," Menten said.   

It's also a bit suspect, she says, that the winning bid came from a firm owned by someone who's donated to all three commissioners' political campaigns and is married to Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat who represents Colorado's 7th Congressional District, which includes Jefferson County.

"There's some cozy relationships going on," Menten said. 

The county says none of the commissioners had a say in who got the job and insists the board is only "gathering information" for a possible ballot measure.

Menten says the job description reads like a campaign manager.

"With this hiring this operative, you are thumbing your nose at voters," she said.

Voters in Jeffco have shot down tax increases twice in the last four years, but commissioners aren't giving up. Menten says they're "tone deaf." In addition to a political consultant, they paid more than $600,000 to mail TABOR refund checks instead of lowering the mill levy so they could include anti-TABOR flyers in the mailing.

"They are so driven to get rid of our (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) and hike our taxes that they've been willing to spend nearly $1 million," Menten said.

And they're not alone. Jeffco Public Schools, Arapahoe County and RTD are all hiring political consultants as well to explore possible tax hikes.

"Hundreds of thousands of our dollars being spent to campaign against us," Menten said.  

And while it might not be unlawful, she says, it is unacceptable.

"Public money shouldn't be spent on setting up a campaign team and donors and strategy messaging -- the polling, the voter universe, all on the public dime -- because it's technically before it became a ballot issue," she said.

Jefferson County sent a statement when asked about this report which states: The county has an ongoing budget shortfall that it must address in 2025. Bighorn (the consulting firm) is helping the county understand possible options for addressing this shortfall... Depending on what we learn from the community, the county could choose not to put forth any ballot initiative and proceed with making cuts to the 2025 budget. At this point, no decisions have been made.

Jeffco says it hired a consultant to get input on funding options from an outside party with expertise.

It is one of only about a dozen counties that still have TABOR in place.

Menten says, once voters give up TABOR protections, it's difficult to get them back because in Colorado you can't bring a citizen's initiative at the county level. She has set up a website -- COBallot.com -- to track 2024 tax initiatives.

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