LETTER: Fixing Aurora’s big city problems requires fixing the revenue problem

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Editor: The Department of Justice’s civil rights investigation of the Ferguson Police Department faulted city leaders for a desperate revenue strategy that relied on ticketing and fines. No one should be surprised when investigators determine that Aurora’s revenue problem contributed to issues within its police department. Aurora didn’t employ the same strategy as Ferguson but years of austerity has had harmful results nonetheless. “We make do” is a common refrain.

Sales tax fuels over half of Aurora’s city budget but its retail economy sputters at 14% below the per-capita average of other Colorado cities. If Aurora’s economy had reached average in 2019, the city would have collected $28 million more in additional sales tax.  Instead, city leaders could only deny entirely appropriate budget requests. 

Denver’s retail economy burns far hotter, generating $1.59 in taxable sales per capita for each dollar generated per capita in Aurora. Complicating matters, Aurora competes with Denver for talent, particularly for police officers. To come close with competitive wages and benefits, leaders have no choice but to cut corners elsewhere — including decisions to NOT investigate or terminate. Bad apples thrive when they see leaders cutting corners on discipline. 

Aurora’s leaders can’t transform APD without fixing the revenue problem. Raising tax rates isn’t politically viable when you consider the gain needed. Filling the $28 million gap in sales tax would require a 76% increase in property taxes. The solution lies in fixing Aurora’s retail sector.

The city needs far more spending on merchandise, dining, and entertainment to happen in Aurora. But too often, the absence of major entertainment venues means residents are leaving for hotspots elsewhere while few ever go to Aurora for fun. Further, Aurora has no noteworthy attractions targeting leisure travelers visiting Colorado.

By not playing in regional entertainment or tourism, Aurora forfeits jobs, tax revenue and other benefits to other cities. With no hometown venues large enough, even the economic activity around school graduations flows west.

In 1987 state legislators miscast Aurora as a bedroom community when they pitched the plan to voters where Denver would be anointed the home to all major Scientific and Cultural Facilities. This was supported with a .1% sales tax – initially across six counties. Although voters reauthorized SCFD in 2016, it’s clear that it hasn’t served Aurora’s economic interests.

By statute the five Tier I entities in Denver get 64% of the .1% sales tax collected across most of seven counties now. Roughly 36% goes to 300 Tier II and III entities—of which only nine are in Aurora. In 2019 SCFD collected $5.4 million in Aurora but only returned about $700,000 to those nine. Denver entities received $4 million of the tax collected in Aurora while Denver’s retail sector rang up 59% more in taxable business per resident. 

Consider a counterfactual history where SCFD never existed. Instead, a city facilities district collected the .1% tax over the past 30 years and directed all of it to venues and organizations in Aurora. It’s then that you realize how vibrant Aurora might have been with venues emerging as the population grew. It’s also then when you realize that SCFD has no role in the city’s future and that Aurora should join Castle Rock and Larkspur in opting out.

Aurora’s leaders should begin planning major venues to attract more retail and restaurant traffic from across the region. Start with a large performing arts center owned by the City of Aurora suitable for 100 to 150 headliner shows per year plus our graduations and civic events. 

Gov. Jared Polis, the legislature and SCFD loyalists should have the grace to acknowledge the unintentional damage inflicted over 30 years. All should support Aurora exiting SCFD to create a new district that would use the same .1% sales tax to bring venues, jobs and artistic diversity to the home of nearly 400,000 Coloradans. It’s the only viable option for growing the tax base their city leaders need to rebuild trust.

— Jeff Brown, via [email protected] 

Jeff Brown is a member of the Citizen’s Advisory Budget Committee for the City of Aurora and a Realtor with RE/MAX Alliance.