Our View: A handful of feathers

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The Moffat County commissioners raised some eyebrows this week by passing on an opportunity to bring in some additional revenue to both the county and city.

If commissioners had applied for an exemption to a state law that limits general revenue growth, they could have received $268,000 -- but with a hitch. They would have had to give half to the city of Craig.

At first blush, it appears that commissioners acted foolishly -- or worse, spitefully -- because Commissioner Les Hampton made the comment, "I don't care how great a neighbor you are, I'm not giving you $100,000."

But the issue is a little more complicated than that. To apply for the exemption, commissioners would have had to publish two newspaper ads and hold public hearings before their Dec. 15 budget deadline; something they thought was unrealistic. The money they stood to receive also comes with a lot of strings attached, which commissioners thought diminished the value of the windfall.

Instead of using the money for needed equipment or ongoing operations, commissioners would have been forced to spend it on capital projects that weren't included in this year's budget. In essence, commissioners thought the revenue created additional work without solving immediate needs.

"My concern was that I didn't want to increase our budget and put in capital projects that we weren't already planning in our budget," Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos said Wednesday.

A 1913 state statute limits annual property tax growth to 5.5 percent. After voters statewide approved the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, Moffat County officials asked voters in 1996 "to retain and expend all revenues and all other funds collected." They thought it was all-encompassing language that exempted the 5.5 percent limitation. But an attorney general's ruling in 1998 found that the language was not specific enough to do that. However, commissioners didn't realize it at the time. It didn't become an issue until this year because commissioners never had generated revenues that exceeded the 5.5 percent growth limitation.

Now that they have excess revenues, commissioners faced a choice. They could have applied for an exemption this year and given half of the extra money away, or they can ask voters for a permanent exemption next year and keep all of the revenue. They opted for the two birds in the bush, versus the one in the hand.

Commissioner-elect Saed Tayyara, who ran on a platform of improving relations with the city, is perplexed why commissioners didn't just take what they could get this year, even if meant sharing.

Now, if voters don't approve a permanent exemption next year, "the loser will be both the city and the county," he said.

The county also faces the task of convincing voters -- the overwhelming majority of whom are city residents -- to approve an exemption, he said.

City Manager Jim Ferree also is frustrated. The city certainly could have used the money, he said.

"We've attempted in the past to partner on issues at the county's request," he said. For example, the city agreed to kick in some money this year for the airport's operational budget.

"I'm unaware of any time they've tried to partner on things that we haven't participated (in)," Ferree said. "Their memory is pretty short, it seems to me."

We don't think the commission's decision was as small-minded as it first appeared. But we think the BOCC missed out on a golden opportunity to improve relations with the city. What commissioners stood to lose in actual revenues would have been surpassed in political capital. They could have at least told the City Council that they had an opportunity to apply for the exemption to find out whether the city would be willing to help out with a road project or the watering of the cemetery in exchange for the application.

Furthermore, the capital projects to which the county could have applied its half of the money are state-mandated, so sooner or later commissioners will have to tackle them. If voters don't approve the permanent exemption, commissioners could find themselves in a bind.

We think it was short-sighted not to apply for the exemption this year. It's unfortunate that the commissioners passed on an opportunity that would have paid immediate dividends for both city and county residents and improved relations between the city and the county at the same time.

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