By Brian Maass
DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4)- Douglas County's newest county commissioner, Lora Thomas, contends it is time to use millions of dollars in tax revenues for widening Interstate 25, money that has been earmarked for public safety for more than two decades.
"Citizens feel their lifestyle is being ruined by traffic congestion," said Thomas. "I think this is a good way for citizens to get use of their tax dollars directly."
Her proposal to use existing tax revenues to widen I-25 south of Castle Rock is meeting with opposition from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, which opposes sharing any of its revenues.
"Right now the sheriff is opposed to it," said Douglas County Undersheriff Holly Nicholson-Kluth.
At issue are massive tax revenues from what is known as the Justice Center Sales Tax, which was approved by Douglas County voters in 1995. The initial aim was to produce $6.5 million a year for operations and maintenance of the Justice Center and "related facilities."
But due to Douglas County's booming population and robust sales tax base, thanks to the Park Meadows Mall, the Castle Rock outlet stores and other retail facilities, the tax produced $26 million in revenue in 2016. Of the counties' 1 percent sales tax, .43 goes to the Douglas County Justice Center and public safety, .40 goes to Douglas County roads and .17 benefits Douglas County Parks and Open Space.
Since 1995, the Douglas County Justice Center tax has raised more than $360 million, paying for construction and repairs at the justice center along with radio towers, mobile data computers, and radios.
In recent years, the sheriff's office has also used the tax revenue for a regional crime lab, $20 million, a vehicle training facility for law enforcement including a 1.6 mile driving track, $3 million, a sheriff's substation in Highlands Ranch, $10 million, an evidence storage facility, $5 million, and other capital projects under the "related facilities" language in the original ballot measure. In 2007, voters agreed to extend the tax.
"Somehow related facilities has morphed into a driving track and a crime lab and I don't think that's what citizens thought they were voting for when it said 'Justice Center,'" said Thomas. "I am just concerned we are spending money inappropriately."
Thomas is proposing restructuring the tax and using about half of it-- $14 million a year-- to expand I-25 through Douglas County, with $12 million a year continuing to go to the sheriff's office. Thomas contends use of that stretch of I-25 has far outstripped capacity.
"If we want to fund public safety at the level we now have," said Nicholson-Kluth, "The money would either have to be cut or it would have to come out of property taxes because right now it's coming out of the justice center sales tax."
She went on to say that with booming retail and its associated tax revenues, has come increased retail-related crime like shoplifting, fraud and car break-ins. She said that 60 percent of the justice center sales tax revenue comes from people from outside of Douglas County who go there to shop.
"It only makes sense that the increase in crime that comes from retail is paid for by those citizens that come here to shop rather than on the backs of Douglas County property owners."
The undersheriff said in the future, the tax revenues would be used for a larger emergency operations center, a joint communications center and a facility to house search and rescue volunteer operations.
On June 13 at 5 p.m., Douglas County Commissioners will host a public hearing to decide if they should allow Douglas County voters to vote on the proposal in November.
"This is a great opportunity for citizens to have their money go to roads," said Thomas, "which is their immediate need."
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