A little over a year after the Jefferson County commissioners broached closing the Jeffco Fairgrounds in response to budget cuts, the decades-old facility has reached what Jeffco County Manager Don …
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A little over a year after the Jefferson County commissioners broached closing the Jeffco Fairgrounds in response to budget cuts, the decades-old facility has reached what Jeffco County Manager Don Davis says is a sustainable level of service.
However, members of a new county board tasked with preserving the agricultural, equine and youth activities the facility has long hosted say doing so has come at the cost of making severe cuts to the facility’s offerings and left it in a precarious long-term position.
“The whole revenue piece has got to change somehow because it’s got us in a stranglehold,” said Lisa Stavig, a member of that board, about provisions of the state TABOR law that have the effect of severely limiting the amount of money the county can spend on the fairgrounds without having to make cuts to other programs. “They’ve cut and cut to the bare bones, and there is nothing else they can cut there unless we close.”
The impact of TABOR on county operation and the fairgrounds came to the forefront last year when County Manager Don Davis announced that the county would need to cut $12.5 million from its budget for 2021 to comply with a TABOR rule limiting how much property tax revenue the county can collect each year.
Complying with that rule creates particular challenges for the county when it comes to the fairgrounds because any revenue generated there counts against the overall TABOR cap on the amount of revenue the county is able to collect. That meant that plans to simply increase the amount of revenue generated by the fairgrounds would only force the county to not collect or reimburse tax revenue, not fixing the budget problem, Davis repeatedly said.
Ultimately, the commissioners voted to approve the plan directing county staff to maintain the aspects of the fairgrounds facility and its operations that are most instrumental to preserving the agricultural, equine and youth activities that take place there, while putting an end to operations that do not support that purpose.
One year later, the county has managed to successfully do just that, Davis said. However, he also said that means the fairgrounds will have to offer much more limited programming than it has in the past without much possibility of adding new programs.
Given the limitations of that level of “sustainability,” Stavig and the other members of the Youth, Equine and Agriculture activities board told the commissioners on April 14 that the county needs to consider taking steps to allow the fairgrounds to increase its budget without impacting that TABOR cap. To that end, members of the board told the commissioners during an April 14 presentation that they have begun researching different possibilities to accomplish that.
During the meeting, several possibilities were presented, including creating a special district to provide services at the fairgrounds that would not be subject to the same TABOR restrictions as the county is or turning the fairgrounds over to a nonprofit that would operate the fairgrounds.
Other possibilities include turning the fairgrounds over to Jefferson County Open Space, reducing costs by cutting back on landscaping and energy use, or creating advertising and sponsorship opportunities at the fairgrounds for businesses that would generate more revenue.
However, members of the board acknowledged that many of those possibilities would present challenges of their own. For example, JCOS’ charter limits what the properties it manages can be used for, which would likely preclude it from taking over the entire fairgrounds.
That’s why Stavig said the best solution might be to go back to the voters with a ballot measure that would remove the TABOR cap on county revenue collection. In 2019, 54% of Jeffco voters voted against 1A, a ballot measure that would have done just that.
“I think going back to the voters and saying let us keep all the revenue at the fairgrounds is probably the strongest and best thing we can do,” Stavig said, “because then it opens us up, and we can start looking at revenue generation and that kind of thing.”
While the board said all of the possibilities mentioned will likely require more research and consideration, Commissioner Lesley Dahlkemper said they represented “a good list of ideas as we look forward.”
However, she also warned that the situation at the fairgrounds is a likely harbinger of things to come for the county as it continues to navigate how to operate under TABOR’s limitations.
“I think the stranglehold you talked about and that your board is working through could be the story of other departments throughout the county,” she said. “Those are issues that we will be looking at across the board in future years.”
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