The Board of Larimer County Commissioners voted 3-0 on Aug. 19 to ask voters to extend part of the county jail tax that sunsets on Dec. 31. The operations portion of the current 0.20 percent sales tax is 0.15 percent (15-hundredths of 1 percent or 1½ cents on a $10 purchase) and the commissioners are asking that amount to be extended for 25 years.
Larimer County has developed many criminal justice programs that cost taxpayers less than jail incarceration. These alternatives are more effective, but without adequate jail funding they could be reduced because they are not mandated.
“We’ve got to be able to operate the jail and we’ve got to be prepared financially should another disaster hit the county,” Commissioner Lew Gaiter III said. “At the same time we don’t want to jeopardize the great alternative criminal justice programs we have.”
Commissioner Tom Donnelly echoed Gaiter’s comment. “We want to continue to keep the jail population down and address mental health as we’re doing now. Our incarceration rate is much lower than the state of Colorado’s and we can only maintain this standard if we have funding,” Donnelly said.
The current tax contributes about $7.5 million to the jail budget, or slightly less than one third of the detention center’s operating cost of $24 million annually.
If the tax is not extended, some existing programs would be cut and funding for new programs like mental health services and the Wellness Court would be limited. Other impacts of inadequate funding would be to let offenders out of jail early and reduce our ability to respond to future disasters.
“Through the budget over the last several years we have been able to cut about $2.5 million in advance of this sunsetting jail operation tax,” Commissioner Steve Johnson said. “However, as of Jan. 1, 2015 we will have to take an additional $5 million out of reserves to continue to operate the jail. We could not have predicted the fires or last year’s flooding. We have already pulled over $20 million out of our reserves for fire and floods and to pull $5 million more would hurt important services citizens depend on.”
If approved by voters in November, projections show that the tax could generate enough revenue to prevent the county from using reserves to balance the 2015 budget. In future years, the dedicated funding for the jail would free up general fund revenue for other needs in criminal justice, social services, transportation or programs associated with the county’s 5-Year strategic plan.
Larimer County builds reserves for large capital expenses and emergencies. Not extending the tax will result in slower recovery from future emergencies resulting in delayed road rebuilding and infrastructure repair.