Larimer County jail sales tax issue heads to voters

A ballot proposal to extend sales taxes to fund jail operations will ask Larimer County voters to put their money where their mouths are.

In 1997, voters approved a pair of .2 percent sales taxes. One earmarked for construction of the justice center is set to cease, or sunset, next year. The other, to fund the last jail expansion, will expire in 2014.

The county is expected to ask voters in November to repeal the existing taxes and replace them with a 15-year, .4 percent tax. The new tax would be about 4 cents on every $10 purchase.

A spring survey suggests that voters will say yes to the proposal.

The final ballot language will be presented to the county commissioners for consideration in an Aug. 23 public hearing, according to Gary Darling, director of criminal justice services. The commissioners are scheduled to take formal action on Aug. 30.

Darling said this proposal builds on lessons learned in previous – unsuccessful – efforts.
First, it calls for only a temporary continuation of existing sales taxes and would sunset in 15 years. As such, the proposition would not result in a new tax or an increase in the tax rate, according to the county.

The combined tax is estimated to generate $14 million annually. Of that, $11 million would be dedicated to jail operations and alternative incarceration programs. The remainder would be set aside for future needs.

Sales taxes cover about 44 percent of the Larimer County Jail’s operating expenses, and that would not change, Darling said. The remainder of the budget would continue to come from the county’s general fund.

Without the continued tax support, Darling said the commissioners certainly would be forced to make dramatic cuts in general fund programs, which constitute the county’s fundamental services.

“The impact could be pretty severe,” he said.

The proposal also builds on the apparent strong public support for improvements to the jail and greater use of pre-trial services to divert non-violent offenders.

Darling said the combination of those pre-trial programs reduced the average daily jail population to 469 in 2010 from 513 in 2005. Darling said the jail is funded for 460 inmates.
Larimer County’s incarceration rate of 155 per 100,000 residents is about half the state average of 292. Nationally the rate is 242 for county jails, he said.

County officials say scientific polling this spring of 500 likely Larimer County voters showed two-thirds supported a sales tax extension to support public safety.

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