Arapahoe County commissioners mull tax increase ballot question to fund new courthouse, jail

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AURORA | Whether Arapahoe County voters could decide to fund a new jail, courthouse or both this fall is now in the hands of the five county commissioners.

Following months of meetings, information sessions and tours, a citizen’s panel of Arapahoe County movers and shakers on Tuesday made a final, informal pitch to the local board of county commissioners regarding if, when and how the county should replace its aging justice center in Centennial. 

The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the local county jail, for years has lamented poor conditions at the facility on South Potomac Street.

Originally built to house 360 inmates in 1986, the jail has since been updated to now accommodate more than 1,400 people, though the average daily population typically hovers around 1,100, according to county documents. But to reach those capacities, many prisoners are triple bunked in diminutive cells, making the task of keeping gang rivals, mentally unstable inmates and other special populations separate from one another even more difficult. 

A lack of general mental health services provided at the jail, and the safety of deputies assigned to work there, has also troubled officials in recent years. The jail recorded 24 assaults by inmates on jail staffers last year, the highest number in the facility’s history, according to the sheriff’s office. There have also been reports of faulty plumbing in cells and other maladies with kitchen and laundry utilities. 

“We’re beginning to see the consequence of a 20-year symptom that’s become a debilitating disease,” former Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson said of the jail’s slow deterioration on Tuesday. Robinson, who also sits on the planning committee, served as Arapahoe County Sheriff for three terms in the early 2000s.

In the coming weeks, the local board of county commissioners, comprised of three Republicans and two Democrats, will have to decide whether to ask voters to fund a new jail, courthouse or both via a variety of financing options. 

Funding an entirely new justice complex, including a new booking and release facility, jail, courthouse and office space for district attorneys, is estimated to cost approximately $931 million, according to county calculations. If pursued and approved by voters, improvements would begin next year and be financed over the course of 30 years, according to county documents.

However, most members of the county planning panel in attendance Aug. 6 expressed a distaste for funding a new courthouse and DA facilities. Many members, including Robinson, instead encouraged commissioners to only fund a new jail. 

Several members of the panel, known as the long range planning committee, said the courthouse doesn’t face as many issues as the aging jail. 

“It’s pretty cushy in there,” Committee Member John Gay said of the court and DA facilities. 

The majority of panel members proposed financing just a new jail — a roughly $464 million expense — through some form of property tax increase. County analysts have projected that a mill levy increase of 3.3 mills could pay for the new facility. That would equate to a bump of about $65 in annual property taxes for the average-priced home — about $380,000 — in the county.

The commissioners could also choose to simultaneously “de-bruce,” or untangle local spending limits imposed by the state’s vexed Taxpayers Bill of Rights, which would only require an increase of .7 mills. But several committee members warned against the “de-bruceing” option, claiming a similar, statewide ballot measure slated to go to voters this Election Day could confuse or sour voters.

“I would love it to be a property tax and a ‘de-bruceing,’” Committee Member and Former Aurora City Councilwoman Polly Page said. “But this is not the time to de-bruce.”

A property tax increase to fund a complete overhaul of the entire justice complex — jail, courthouse and DA’s office — would still keep Arapahoe County among the lowest mill levy totals in the metro area. The current Arapahoe County mill levy total sits just north of 13 mills. The county with the next closest mill levy is Broomfield with approximately 17 mills. Denver boasts a current mill levy around 27 mills, according to county data.

The county commissioners could also opt for a sales tax increase, though nearly all committee members urged the board against pursuing that option, saying sales tax manipulation should be left to municipalities.

“I was a city council member — stay away from the sales tax,” Page said. “You need the mayors and the council members out there … You don’t want to just put them out there and make them mad right off the bat.”

Tom Tobiassen, a former candidate for Aurora City Council and cyber security consultant, said no matter what option, if any, is explored, any tax increase will be a difficult ask in a county teeming with a strong but aging voting block.

“It’s going to be a hard sale no matter you do,” Tobiassen said.

The county commissioners will decide whether to pursue a 2019 ballot question at a yet-to-be scheduled public meeting in the coming weeks, according to a county spokesperson. 

“The impact of the decision that we’re facing is not lost on us,” said Commission Board Chairman Jeff Baker. “This is probably the most important thing that this board of county commissioners, and previous boards of county commissioners, and possibly some future boards of county commissioners, will have to decide.”

The board must render a decision by September 6, when local ballots must be certified with county clerks.