Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn sues county commissioners
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn is suing the Board of County Commissioners over a $552 tax issue and in the process has racked up more than $20,000 in legal fees.
The lawsuit accuses the commissioners of illegally abating tax interest, and Horn said the legal fees are justified.
“It was a difficult decision, but I have to uphold the law of doing what’s right,” Horn said Wednesday. “I had no choice.”
Some county elected officials are critical of the lawsuit, and they have denied the allegations.
This is the latest quarrel between Horn and the commissioners.
“I think it’s an absolute waste of taxpayer money,” Commissioner Cari Hermacinski said. “I don’t know if there is another elected official in the state that is doing something so frivolous.”
Assessor Gary Peterson is also critical of Horn.
“She’s ignoring state statutes and charging interest illegally… and not sending out tax bills when she should be,” Peterson said.
The tax issue and ensuing lawsuit are related to two new barns that were built at the 149-acre Mystic Canyon Ranch in North Routt County. When the Assessor’s Office discovered the new barns, it was determined the barns should have been added to the tax rolls.
Horn thought the property owners should be charged $552 in interest for the two years of back taxes.
The property owners did not dispute they owed two years worth of taxes on the barns, but they thought it was unfair to be charged the interest.
Peterson and the commissioners take issue with the property owners being charged interest and with Horn’s office not sending the property owners a revised tax bill.
“Nowhere in this world do you charge somebody something and not give them notice of it,” Peterson said. “It’s just expected best practices.”
When Peterson asked Horn about her new policy of not sending out revised tax bills, Peterson said Horn’s “cold response” was that “they can find it online.”
Horn defended her decision to not mail out revised tax bills.
“We’ve been driving our community to the website, and it’s all there,” Horn said. “The county commissioners have invested millions of dollars for new software and making sure it’s easy for the public to use.”
On Sept. 11, the commissioners had a hearing with Horn and the attorney she uses out of Denver to discuss the tax issue. The firm, Klenda, Gessler & Blue, has charged the county at a rate of $350 per hour in the past, and the bills are adding up.
A poor working relationship between Horn and the county commissioners and their attorney has forced county taxpayers to pay a premium for the outside law firm retained by the Treasurer’s Office in the past.
Horn’s attorney argued the commissioners had no legal authority in this case to lessen someone’s taxes, otherwise known as abating taxes.
“These commissioners as a whole have come in and tried to do my job as treasurer,” Horn said.
At the end of the hearing, the commissioners unanimously agreed and voted that the property owners should not be charged interest.
To get around Horn’s legal argument that the commissioners did not have the authority to abate taxes, the commissioners voted to cut a check to the property owners using money from the county’s general fund.
“This is the law, and they decide to use another mechanism to pay back their friend — a political ally,” said Horn, who is alleging that there are politics involved.
During the hearing, the ranch property owners, who do not live here full time, were represented by Steamboat Springs rancher Christy Belton. Horn provided documentation in the lawsuit that shows Belton has supported Hermacinski in her political campaigns.
Belton does not deny it, but she pointed out she has also financially supported Horn during her political campaigns.
“I was one of the early donors in her bid for state treasurer,” Belton said.
Hermacinski stands by the decision to refund the interest.
“She’s concerned about $552 that we refunded to a taxpayer because she was charging them interest on taxes that they didn’t even know they owed,” Hermacinski said.
Commissioners Doug Monger and Tim Corrigan also said they would vote the same way.
“The frustrating part is it’s $500,” Monger said. “It’s all about power and control and ego.”
“I find it really unfortunate that she has chosen to run up legal fees on really unnecessary disputes with the county commissioners,” Corrigan said. “The idea that the county commissioners have behaved inappropriately is wrong in my view.”
Horn filed the lawsuit Sept. 18 in District Court.
Horn is also asking Judge Shelley Hill to temporarily order Routt County to not reimburse the property owners for the interest.
The commissioners are being represented by County Attorney Erick Knaus. He is holding onto the check cut to the property owners until the lawsuit is resolved.
Judge Hill is scheduled to hear arguments related to temporarily not allowing the county to give the check to the property owners at 8:15 a.m. Wednesday.
Horn’s last day as treasurer is Dec. 31.
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