GUEST COLUMN: Arapahoe County jail and justice needs call for deft funding plan

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Arapahoe County is one of the fastest-growing counties in Colorado. Almost 800,000 people will reside here by 2030, which would make us the most populous county in the metro area. As our population grows, so does the demand for county services. And many of our infrastructure components – including roads, bridges, the jail and courthouse – are rapidly aging into obsolescence.

The cost to construct a new detention center is approximately $464 million; add a new courthouse and district attorney offices and that capital number increases to almost $1 billion. Given that our jail and courthouse are already crowded and in a worsening state of disrepair, the county must reckon with how we can meet the demands that population growth is placing on our facilities.

Some residents have suggested that the county has ample revenue on hand to solve these challenges, or can “efficiency its way” into funding these projects. This is simply not true. The county’s new fiscal reality is that without additional revenue streams, we will not be able to pay for the critical public safety, transportation, and other important programs that contribute to the high quality of life our residents expect. Absent a dedicated funding mechanism for the detention center, the county would need to cut more than $30 million annually from these existing programs just to ”make the payments” on a new jail.

Arapahoe County has a well-earned reputation for fiscal responsibility and for efficient resource allocation of our general fund. We are one of the few Colorado counties that lives within the property tax limits established by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). Only about 15 percent of what our residents pay in taxes is designated for use by the county; the rest goes to schools, cities and towns within the county, and other special districts that provide things such as water, fire response services, and support for people with developmental disabilities.

Because of TABOR, the county has learned to do more with less; we have not raised property taxes since 1991, and we last established new sales taxes, which were dedicated to the County’s open spaces, in 2003. Apart from those two instances, we’ve always needed to deliver crucial public safety, human services, and transportation programs without asking citizens for additional funding.

We have long prided ourselves on running a lean government, expanding buying power with federal and state grants, employing fiscal transparency, and building a modest rainy day fund — consistent with TABOR mandates — to address unexpected emergencies. In fact, TABOR expressly prohibits us from spending those emergency funds directly, or from borrowing against them for vital projects, such as our aging infrastructure.

So even though the county has approximately $40 million in “rainy day” emergency funds, that amount cannot solve the current jail’s many problems. Nor would it be fiscally responsible to drain these reserves, particularly when building this new jail is merely the first phase of our long-range mission to keep the county whole and vibrant. This is why we are considering sensible funding alternatives that reflect the area’s evolving needs, always mindful of our duty to preserve and enhance Arapahoe County’s exceptional quality of life.

Learn more about our challenges and potential solutions at www.arapahoegov.com/countyconversations.

This essay was submitted by the Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners.