Our view: Residents deserve to know | SteamboatToday.com

Our view: Residents deserve to know

At issue

Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn is withholding details of a settlement with Peabody Energy resulting in payment of nearly $1.8 million in overdue property taxes

Our view

Considering Horn’s months long refusal to accept the Peabody payment without interest and fees, we think Routt County residents deserve to know whether the interest and fees were collected

We were relieved last week to learn that Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn had reached an agreement with Peabody Energy to accept the $1.77 million the company owed in overdue taxes associated with its Twentymile coal mine.

Our view

Considering Horn’s months long refusal to accept the Peabody payment without interest and fees, we think Routt County residents deserve to know whether the interest and fees were collected

The settlement, announced Monday, brings to a close nearly four months of waiting and uncertainty for 18 local taxing entities — including an entire school system, a rural medical center, a library and two rural fire protection districts — some of which rely heavily upon Peabody taxes to fund day-to-day operations.

With that in mind, we commend Horn for working diligently, and successfully, to negotiate payment terms with the energy giant.

At the same time, however, we’re frustrated by Horn’s unwillingness to release the particulars of the settlement.

Readers will recall that, in late July, Peabody was cleared by a federal bankruptcy judge to pay its overdue property taxes, but Horn, citing Colorado state law, refused to accept the payment. At the time, Horn said — and has since maintained — she was statutorily barred from accepting the payment, because the offer did not include the interest and fees that had accrued on the $1.77 million tax bill.

Moreover, Horn added, accepting the payment without the interest and fees would have been a disservice to the county’s other taxpayers.

“Even if I were authorized to do so, waiving the interest and fees for a powerful and politically connected company like Peabody would be unfair to other Routt County taxpayers,” Horn wrote in a three-page letter to the Board of Routt County Commissioners on Aug. 12. “Equalty before the law requires the same rules and procedures apply to all taxpayers …”

While we cannot take issue with Horn’s legal argument, and though we admire her devotion to the concept of fundamental fairness, we are deeply concerned by her refusal to provide the details of the settlement, details which, in our view, she owes Routt County residents as surely as Peabody owed its property taxes.

Regardless of how righteous her decision may have been, Horn’s refusal to accept the settlement when it was offered four months ago seriously inconvenienced several local taxing entities, including the South Routt Library District, which was forced to draw upon capital reserves to bridge the gap; South Routt Medical Center, which accepted a stop-gap loan from the Board of County Commissioners; and South Routt School District, which was forced to borrow $1 million from the Colorado Board of Education.

Consequently, we feel that, at the very least, Horn owes county taxpayers a better explanation of why she imperiled vital public services for four months, how she negotiated the impasse and, most importantly, whether the county actually received the interest and fees she was holding out for.

For now, all we can do is speculate.

According to a Nov. 2 statement from Wells Fargo, two deposits from Peabody — one for $25,285.32 and another for $1,873,751,51 — landed in the county’s accounts Oct. 31, and the total of these deposits — $1,899,036.83 — suggests the settlement may have included at least some of the interest and fees Horn was seeking.

Yet, we don’t know that as a certainty, and we have a right to.

Both Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Board of County Commissioners have filed requests under the Colorado Open Records Act calling upon Horn to release more information about the settlement.

We reiterate those requests here.

In our view, Horn should release a detailed accounting of the total amount of interest and fees she was seeking and a breakdown of what these fees were for and how they were accrued. She should also provide a definitive “yes” or “no” with regard to whether she collected the interest and fees for which she seriously burdened several local taxing entities.

In a 2014 op-ed she wrote while running for her first full term as treasurer, Horn stated, “A vote for Brita Horn is a vote for fairness and transparency.”

And while we cannot quibble with the treasurer’s devotion to the concept of fairness, her idea of “transparency,” in this issue, at least, leaves much to be desired.

Both the county commissioners and the newspaper were right to request the information. The community deserves it, and we call upon the treasurer to provide it.

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