Press "Enter" to skip to content

How to earn those epithets

Essay by Kent Maxwell

Local Politics – December 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

GOVERNMENT IN CHAFFEE COUNTY has grown more slowly, thanks to me. Next year alone, some $700,000 worth of property taxes won’t be leaving taxpayer wallets to fill the coffers of the Salida School District and Chaffee County Fire Protection District.

Yet, I’d be the first to admit that Salida teachers deserve higher salaries and that more equipment is needed for adequate fire protection in outlying areas of the county.

It comes down to a difference of opinion as to the means to achieve those ends.

At varying times I’ve been labeled a “concerned citizen,” a “vocal opponent,” a “tax critic,” and a “nitpicker.” And several not-so-kind epithets as well.

I like to think I have worked hard to earn each and every epithet.

Nine years ago, I attended my first fire district board meeting. I had been a volunteer firefighter for the district for about a year and a half. I was 22 years old, a grown man, a fireman.

A couple days prior, I had helped put a kid of 24 into a body bag. He was a truck driver, hauling a load of grain over Poncha Pass. He had misjudged the grade and chosen the wrong gear.

A state trooper clocked his rig at 97 mph just before he got to the curve and the bridge that killed him.

The newspaper article that came out about the accident talked about the driver and where he was from and where he was headed and a line about the assistant coroner.

There was no mention that the fire department responded.

So I attended that board of directors meeting and told them something had to be done. We hadn’t made any heroic rescue that day, but our firefighters showed up and did what we could. The public should be told that.

After that, I was assigned the duties and eventually given the title (but never a paycheck) of public information officer. I wrote a lot of press releases. I spent a lot of time talking with reporters. I explained all the things firefighters did and why they were all so very important. I learned how to get the story written just the way I wanted it.

But those skills would later work to the detriment of the fire district, and then of the school district.

I attended many of the fire district’s board meetings over the years. I was at one near the end of 1993, when they were discussing a 4-mill tax increase for the May, 1994, election. The consensus was that the fire district should ask the voters for more money.

The secretary had said she would not serve as election official again. It was never a fun job to begin with, and the 1992 Tabor amendment had made it even less so.

The discussion went around the room for a while, and everyone agreed that we needed more money, but nobody was willing to help the district jump through all the hoops to get it.

Finally, I raised my hand, and volunteered for the job.

After all, I said to myself, “How hard could it be?”

I soon learned.

I went to a class in Denver and spent a whole day listening to state officials detailing all the ways I could screw up the election. I read and re-read the state election laws. I called the state agencies with questions and talked to the fire district’s attorney about concerns.

We agonized over the wording of the ballot questions, ending up with two measures to put before the voters, one for the tax increase and a “de-Brucing” measure to remove the Tabor spending limits.

On election day, the tax increase was defeated, while the de-Brucing measure passed. We didn’t get the additional 4 mills, but as property values soared in the mid-90s our tax revenue from the existing mill levy rose dramatically. Within two years, the fire district purchased two, state-of-the-art, quarter-million-dollar fire engines.

In 1998 the Colorado Attorney General ruled our de-Brucing measure did not exempt us from a particular statutory property tax limit (which is exactly what our local attorney had said back in 1994). Early in 1999 the fire district was ordered to refund the excess revenues to taxpayers, cutting that year’s tax revenues down to $270,000.

DURING THE SPRING AND SUMMER of 1999, the fire district tossed around ideas for the November election. The resulting proposal was to ask voters for 2 mills, or about $150,000. Because the assessed valuation had more than doubled, 2 mills would generate more than the 4 mills would have in 1994 (and by 2001 the 2 mills would have been worth $200,000.)

I declined to serve what would have been my fourth stint as election official. I had just gotten engaged to be married, and as my firefighter buddies said at my bachelor party, I had finally gotten a life. In mid-September, 1999, Robin and I were married.

On a Wednesday night two weeks later, the fire chief gave his spiel to the firefighters about how everyone should support the tax increase for two reasons. The first was loyalty to the fire department. The second was because ballot wording dedicated the money solely for the purpose of capital improvements: new fire trucks and equipment and stations.

On that Saturday, the Tabor notice arrived in the mailbox. I read the ballot question and then read it again.

I called the fire chief and told him the ballot question didn’t say what he thought it did. The wording wouldn’t stop the board from using the money for salaries or pension benefits or anything else they wanted.

He said I was wrong.

I called the chairman of the board of directors, and he said I was correct. The fire district’s Denver attorney encouraged the board to leave themselves the flexibility to make those decisions in the future.

I resigned as public information officer on Sunday, saying I couldn’t promote a deceptive tax issue. I then learned that the attorney general had recently reversed the 1998 decision, and that year 2000 tax revenues would climb back to about $370,000, even without the additional 2 mills.

It was too late to change the wording at that point. I came out publicly against the measure, saying it amounted to a blank check and wasn’t needed as much as district officials claimed. The tax increase was narrowly defeated.

In the end, I lost the respect of many in the fire department who felt betrayed. But, on the other hand, I gained respect from some in the community, and more importantly, from my wife and step-daughter.

In December and January, the fire chief made a few relatively minor reprisals, in the form of memos and not face-to-face.

Personally, the most significant repercussion is that the fire district doesn’t have anyone doing public information anymore. I continue to go on fire calls, but nobody reads about it the next morning in the newspaper.

Although I still believed I had done the right thing, I accepted as justified some of the criticism that I had gone about it the wrong way. As a result, I approached this year’s school-district tax issue differently.

I got involved earlier in this process.

In August I met with the school superintendent and then attended several school board meetings to discuss the ballot wording. My early suggestions were to draft a proposal more palatable to taxpayers and thus easier to get approved at the polls.

I sought to have a sunset provision included, so the tax would go away in 4 or 6 years. The school district could still come back to the voters, if the tax was still needed then. I also wanted to retain the spending limits, so that as property values increased, the mill levy would decrease, thus keeping the dollar amount about the same. They listened politely to my suggestions and promptly ignored what I said.

It might have been left at that, until I found out that they were also blatantly ignoring those state election laws I had sweated over in 1994. They acted as if no one were watching. But, I was.

At first my wife was hesitant for me to go public. With her new job as a substitute teacher and with a daughter with several years remaining to attend the district’s schools, she was naturally concerned that reaction this time would not be limited just to me. While she didn’t try to stop me, she exerted the tempering effect of a staunch ally. She encouraged me to keep the campaign from dropping to a personal level, instead focusing on getting the facts to the voters.

The measure was defeated, again by a narrow margin. Salida teachers may or may not get the salary increase they have been promised. And, initially, I felt I was left with only a hollow victory, an outcome with no winners.

WOULD I DO THE SAME if I had it to do all over again? Probably. Getting involved in the community is seldom a bad thing to do, even when it’s as the role of the nay-sayer. School and fire district boards have a tendency to become inbred, by their very nature of filling director vacancies with like-minded people and incumbents frequently unopposed for re-election. Boards seek to have no dissent at the table. The pursuit of harmony becomes so overriding that board members are persuaded to all think alike, or not think at all.

Added to that is the commonplace over-reliance on a particular school superintendent or fire chief, which results in weak boards that are ineffectual. For the sake of expediency, board members don’t question decisions or actions, and administrators often don’t feel a need to explain.

When it comes time to ask for more money, they wrap a vague, poorly worded tax proposal up in the emotion of “for our kids,” or “if it only saves one life.” They then rely upon a political machine to coerce a “yes” vote. Informed consent is not sought.

I may not have the power to change this system.

But, from time to time, I can bring a measure of accountability to our government.

Kent Maxwell lives near Maysville, and was the most vocal opponent of the Salida School District’s mill-levy increase which was defeated in the Nov. 7 election.