A Perfect Storm....

A Perfect Storm

Hundreds of Adams County residents assemble to explore legal remedies as the deadline to contest the controversial new stormwater fee draws closer

By Gene Sears
 

Hundreds of angry taxpayers flooded the Werth Manor Event Center in Commerce City, together again to protest the county’s plan to charge residents for a controversial stormwater utility.
    Held by former Adams County Commission candidate Gary Mikes and organizers from Citizens in Opposition, the event featured numerous speakers, a video rallying the opposition and legal advice from attorney Sean Gallagher.

<div class="source">Photo by Gene Sears</div><div class="image-desc">Polsinelli Shugart attorney Sean Gallagher discusses potential legal strategies for opposing Adam’s County’s new stormwater utility fee with a capacity crowd at the Werth Manor Event Center last week. </div><div class="buy-pic"><a href="http://web2.lcni5.com/cgi-bin/c2newbuyphoto.cgi?pub=170&amp;orig=sbl_loc_stormwater25.JPG" target="_new">Buy this photo</a></div>
Photo by Gene Sears
Polsinelli Shugart attorney Sean Gallagher discusses potential legal strategies for opposing Adam’s County’s new stormwater utility fee with a capacity crowd at the Werth Manor Event Center last week.

    After brief opening remarks, Mikes introduced the video segment, produced by stopthestormwatertax.org. A montage exhorting affected taxpayers to action, the film also slammed former Adams County Commissioners Alice Nichol and Larry Pace for the series of scandals that marked their administration.
    The film went on to portray incoming commissioners Eva Henry and Chaz Tedesco as unsympathetic to the cause, with both on the record as supporting the utility. Tedesco took particular flack over his history of foreclosure, legal troubles and campaign finance issues, raising the ire of the crowd.
    Founding member Catherine Lawrence laid out the early history of the formal opposition to the stormwater tax, highlighting the grassroots effort that has taken on a life all its own.
    “It was just a bunch of neighbors getting together, and we were really pissed,” Lawrence said. “We all got our cards, and we said, ‘No, this just isn’t going to work.’ So we started sending out fliers and talked and emailed, and this has just grown legs and gotten quite large.”
    Offering the group’s website, campaign signs and access to petitions denouncing the utility, Lawrence provided a way for citizens to get involved.
    Mike Gilmore, the petition author, distributed copies and told the crowd that the group intended to present the signatures to the board of county commissioners at 9:30 a.m. March 11. He also provided copies of appeals forms for the stormwater fee, encouraging property owners to file before the deadline of April 1.
    “Because the more we send in, the harder it gets to process these son-of-a-guns,” Gilmore said. “So if you need an appeal form and would like to do that, it’s fairly simple and I have extras.”
    Laying out the potential legal argument against the county, attorneys Sean Gallagher and Richard Murray and Steve Wright, of the law firm Polsinelli Shugart, illustrated the possibility of litigating the fee issue as a violation of Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
    Gallagher, who said he “fervently believes that all politics are local,” said he has been concerned in recent years with decisions by the state to allow municipalities to do an end-run on TABOR by renaming taxes as ‘fees.’ Gallagher noted that if Adams County proceeds, there is little to stop them from imposing any sort of future service charges as fees, regardless of type or benefit to the individual.
    “I also believe that our government is limited by TABOR, and I believe that in a number of situations, services are underfunded,” Gallagher said. “But you know what, that is a decision of the people, and if Adams County had felt this was important enough to justify the action, they could have gone to the people and asked approval to raise taxes to cover this.”
    Despite his position as a litigator, Gallagher said he saw the real strength of the group as political, with a lawsuit as a last resort to budge an unwilling commission. Political pressure failing, the legal team would move forward, questioning the legality of the fee approach. Toward that end, Gallagher suggested forming a steering committee to engage the law firm to start digging, first with the county attorney, then a series of open records requests to obtain the necessary information to proceed. In turn, the steering committee would then evaluate the chances of success of a lawsuit, deciding on a suitable course of action.
    “What I am here tonight to tell you is this; we are very interested in helping you,” Gallagher said. “It is an uphill battle, though. We don’t want to embark upon it unless we think we have a reasonable shot. But at the same time, I encourage you to keep up the political pressure, because I think ultimately that is going to be the key.”

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