Brita Horn: Taxpayers must be treated equally

Every day, fellow community members who face hard times come to the Treasurer’s Office and ask for a break on the interest and fees from non-payment or late payment of taxes. Some don’t have money to buy groceries for their families. The county is not authorized to offer them special relief.

Why should the Treasurer’s Office treat a company differently? That’s exactly what Peabody Energy is asking of Routt County. It’s unlawful and unfair.

Peabody Energy recently declared bankruptcy and did not pay its property tax bill of $1.8 million. Peabody got permission from the bankruptcy court to pay its taxes, but Peabody will pay only if Routt County reduces it by $91,723.

According to state law, the Treasurer’s Office is not permitted to reduce or waive taxes, fees or interest for amounts greater than $50. Peabody requested that the Routt County Treasurer’s Office ignore state statute to cut the company a special deal.

This law exists for good reasons. As officers entrusted with collecting taxes, we must treat everyone equally. For this office to cut deals for some taxpayers — while making others pay in full — would be unfair and would erode public trust.

Fortunately, Peabody has money to pay its taxes. The company recently received permission from the bankruptcy court to pay executives $16 million in bonuses. I’m disturbed that the company is playing hardball and demanding special treatment at the expense of Routt County citizens.

Because Peabody has money to pay its taxes due, this issue boils down to whether the county treats everyone equally regarding tax collection, or whether larger and more politically-connected taxpayers are held to a different standard.

Peabody’s delinquency creates a cash crunch, and the Treasurer’s Office is working hard to find a solution. The good news is that we will get paid with interest and fees. In bankruptcy court, property taxes are the first items to be paid. While in bankruptcy, Peabody must pay tax bills, including interest and penalties on time.

For delinquent taxes, Routt County can speed up the process. First, the county will ask the court to tell Peabody that it authorized the company to pay all of its delinquent property taxes, not just a portion.

Second, the county can ask the court to allow the county to proceed with its normal fall sale of delinquent taxes. That way, the county receives the funds as in other tax cases, and Peabody will pay the buyer at the end of bankruptcy. The county already has interest from potential buyers.

Finally, other sources may help county services cover any short-term financial gaps. The South Routt County School District received an emergency, zero-interest loan from the state to cover costs. And Routt County has $10 million in cash reserves, so the county might be able to loan those funds to others as the bankruptcy proceeds.

I am committed to working with our community members to resolve this quickly and equitably. Routt County citizens deserve a government that treats citizens equally — not one that bows to politically-powerful entities.

Our county’s citizens repeatedly have told me that they appreciate that I will stand up for them against a large corporation pulling political strings. Unfortunately, Peabody is not the only one facing tough times, but the company must pay its bill just like everyone who loses a job, faces a bankruptcy or faces financial issues.

By law, if this office can’t offer a tax break to a single mom who worries about feeding her children, I’m not going to offer one to a corporation that just received permission to pay executives $16 million in bonuses.

Brita Horn

Routt County treasurer

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