Could land acquired for wildlife ding local schools, state’s taxpayers?

/ Colorado News Agency
Sep 8th, 2010

IMG_5096The Colorado Division of Wildlife won approval today from a panel of lawmakers to expand its real estate portfolio, leading one lawmaker to question whether the land acquisitions would end up shortchanging school districts on tax revenue–and costing the state money when it has to back-fill the funding.

Four land parcels were OK’d under the arrangement, intended to accommodate wildlife; two are donations in the form of conservation easements, which give the land’s owners a tax break, and the other two are purchases of land at appraised market value.

The parcels sought by the Wildlife Division include a migration path for elk as well as habitats for prong horn, white tailed deer, mule deer, elk, black bear, mountain lion, and for birds that are on the division’s Colorado Endangered, Threatened and Species of Special Concern list, such as the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, and the greater sage grouse.  The easements are just north of Hayden and southwest of Grand Junction.  The properties for purchase are located just west of Pueblo.

The conservation easements were approved by the legislative Capital Development Committee with little discussion.  However, the proposals to purchase land, one for $227,000 and the other for $3, 865,000, received more scrutiny from a Republican member of the panel, Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, of Sterling.

Unlike conservation easements, the state’s outright acquisition of property means property taxes would not be collected by local governments, notably school districts, although counties can apply for an Impact Assistance Grant whereby the DOW reimburses the county for lost revenue.  The counties must pro-actively apply for the grants. Pueblo County did not apply for the grant last year, according to DOW staff, which triggered a line of questioning from the Sterling lawmaker.

Sonnenberg surmised that if the counties forgo the grants, the state will be stuck with the tab for the K-12 portion that isn’t covered by the counties revenues.

“For education and schools, the property taxes aren’t collected and the state will have to back-fill those property taxes for education,” asserted Sonnenberg. “When we take this amount of land off of the public tax rolls, when we’re struggling in the state to meet our funding obligations, and we have to back-fill because you have purchased property, and  the county doesn’t ask for the tax money, we have to back-fill that–and that’s always a concern. “

Committee chairman Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, affirmed Sonnenberg’s concern.

“You are right. If the tax moneys don’t come in for the school district then, because of equalization, we do have the general fund that is making it up for the schools – you’re right. “

Speaking for the Wildlife Division, Grady McNeill said that the agency makes the grant process very accessible to the counties and that the counties are not required by law to seek the money.   The money funding the grants comes out of revenue generated by the division through fees and not out of the General Fund’s tax revenue.

Sonnenberg took his line of questioning a step further, wondering if the department’s policy of advertising for land acquisition might further exacerbate the problem of the state having to back-fill education revenue as a result of the land purchases.

“The process you use  (soliciting landowners to sell) may not be landowners that particularly want to sell,” he said. “They see the opportunity for a proposal and that may stimulate them to sell.”

The vote to approve the land purchases fell along party lines with Sonnenberg and fellow Republican Scott Renfroe of Greeley voting against the proposal.

The Conservation Easements:

Red Hawk Ranch Too Conservation Easement (1,000 acres)

Taylor Flat Conservation Easement (640 acres)

The land acquisitions:

Clift property (279 acres) for $227,000.

El Estate de Dos Hermanas . (4,069 acres) for $3,865,000.

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