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Commissioners swore they'd stay committed to finding the money to widen Interstate 25 between Castle Rock and Monument, but ultimately the board voted down a controversial proposal by Commissioner Lora Thomas to shift sales tax dollars from the county justice center to roads and bridges.
"That is one thing I do not want to compromise - is public safety," Board Chairman Roger Partridge said before the June 14 vote.
Beginning in her campaign for commissioner, Thomas proposed moving some tax dollars currently allocated toward the justice center to help pay for county road projects - and the widening the I-25 Gap or Castle Rock-to-Monument stretch, a project led by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
"I think that public safety is going to be enhanced south of Castle Rock on Interstate 25," she said of her vision. "I believe that accidents and injuries are going to be reduced."
Thomas formally presented her plan to the board of commissioners for the first time at a special business meeting that stretched over two evenings from June 13 to June 14. Commissioners listened to impassioned arguments for and against the proposal, including from sheriff's deputies and victims of car crashes.
Proposal would pay only for roads
Touting the proposal as a way to avoid new or higher taxes, Thomas had recommended sending a ballot question to the voters in November.
But the plan was met with fierce opposition from Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock and other top-ranking officials in the department, who maintained they needed the money for capital projects in the next two to three years.
"I don't think a lot of people understand the magnitude of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office and what we serve," Spurlock said. "I urge you right now...don't put that on the ballot because it's inappropriate for the people of Douglas County."
The county's 1 percent sales tax is split between roads, the justice center and open space. Roads receive .40, the justice center .43 and open space .17.
The justice center's fund was first approved in 1995 to build a new county justice center and extended in 2007 for continued operation, maintenance and capital needs of the justice center and related facilities.
It has since paid for jail expansions, communication towers, substations and other projects related to law enforcement and the criminal justice system in Douglas County.
Thomas envisioned taking .23 of the justice center fund and placing it into a pot for roads and transportation. Thomas' proposed fund would sunset in 2035, she said, but garner an estimated $366 million for her cause by that time.
"To pay for solely roads. Nothing else. Roads," Thomas said at the initial meeting on June 13.
Her main mission was the I-25 gap, a 17-mile stretch of road between Castle Rock and Monument considered a public safety hazard and a deterrent to economic growth by law enforcement and county officials.
While the Colorado Department of Transportation seeks hundreds of millions of dollars to fund a widening project on the road, Thomas said Douglas County could produce some of those dollars by approving her tax initiative.
The county also has a lengthy list of roads projects that she included in the proposal.
Public comment spans two days
The initial meeting on June 13 lasted more than five hours, including three hours of presentations from Thomas and the sheriff's department, followed by more than two hours of public comment.
By 10 p.m., about half a dozen people raised their hands in hopes to speak yet that night to the board, which had planned to end the meeting by that time. The meeting was continued for the following evening. Most on June 13 opposed Thomas' recommendation.
Night two saw another 2 1/2 hours of public comment in which many speakers still opposed Thomas' recommendation but more supported putting it on the ballot than in the previous night.
Commissioners debated the issue until nearly 10 p.m. when Partridge and Commissioner David Weaver voted to deny the proposal. Thomas voted to support it. Weaver said the funding of transportation issues and that of law enforcement needs were both critical to the county.
"I'll be honest with you - I am so torn," he said before explaining he'd vote against the proposal unless it was amended so as not to touch the .13 before it sunsets.
Partridge said he was inspired by the passionate pleas he'd heard during public comment to help improve I-25.
But Thomas' proposal fell short, said Partridge, who believes the county has flexibility in its general fund to assist the I-25 project. It is an option that avoids taking funds from law enforcement and public safety needs, he said.
"That's what I offer, that we have other alternatives already," Partridge said.
Over the span of both nights, emotions ran high as residents from Douglas County and some from its southern neighbor, El Paso County, shared personal stories or connections to each side of the issue.
Sheriff's deputies and parents of officers injured on duty all spoke on behalf of leaving the tax as it is, as well as citizens who prioritize public safety.
Likewise, those plagued by I-25 traffic south of Castle Rock spoke, including residents who'd been affected by traffic accidents in the area, congestion or long commute times.
Some called for voters to decide the issue in November. The county had grown by more than 100,000 registered voters since the 2007 extension and those new voters deserved a say, Thomas' supporters said.
As of June 1, the county had 236,635 registered voters. In the November 2007 election, there were fewer than 111,000 registered voters.
Commissioners commit to finding solution
Still, a majority said the sheriff's office had proven it was a good steward of the justice center fund and had further capital needs for the money. Before the .13 for capital projects sunsets, Spurlock said he hopes to pursue projects such as an emergency management operation center.
Other residents simply called for commissioners to find a solution that fixed roads. Maybe money would come from law enforcement, maybe not. Regardless, they asked for the community to come together to find an answer.
And after hours of deliberation, it was to that idea all commissioners promised to stay true.
"I'm telling you I will stay committed to that," Partridge said of pursuing I-25 funding. "No doubt."
Following the vote, Thomas remained hopeful in the board's ability to deliver.
"I'm really pleased that my fellow commissioners have committed to get this solved," she said. "We'll start working together to see what other opportunities we have."
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