Routt County treasurer rejects appeals from city, county commissioners over tax payment issue
April 30, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Routt County commissioners are once again butting heads with Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn regarding the treasurer's handling of a tax payment issue.
Horn says she's advocating for the interests of county taxpayers by withholding $104,947 of road and bridge tax revenue from the city of Steamboat Springs as a way to recover money Horn claims the county mistakenly overpaid to the city for more than a decade.
Horn used an attorney to draft a letter to the city about the payment issue, and she has also included an 8-percent interest charge representing $7,774 of the amount withheld.
According to the treasurer, the interest is required under state law.
The Routt County commissioners have said publicly they don't think the county should go after the interest for a mistake that the county reportedly made.
They also drafted a letter last week claiming they think they could better resolve the issue with the city themselves without Horn's involvement and her use of an outside attorney.
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The city of Steamboat Springs is also starting to weigh in.
The city's attorneys don't think Horn has the legal authority to withhold any tax payments from their tax coffers.
They appealed Horn's decision in a letter last week.
The situation has led to a series of letters in recent days between the city, the county commissioners and the treasurer's office.
The letters and interviews with elected officials ultimately reveal ongoing tensions between Horn's office and other government officials in the county.
In dueling letters sent last week, the commissioners and Horn were blunt and critical of each other.
"We have engaged with the City and believe the problem can be resolved most efficiently without further action by your Office," the county commissioners wrote to Horn. "Furthermore, we do not believe that engaging your attorneys to work on this matter would be a productive use of your resources and respectfully request that you allow us two weeks to reach a resolution before needlessly spending more County money on attorney fees."
Horn responded by saying she wouldn't let the commissioners interfere and stop her from doing her job.
"I aspire to serve and represent our residents by leading with intention and consistency, and believe that I have done so," she said.
She said she would like to work with the commissioners to serve the interests of the county, but she "could not do so when you attempt to compromise the independence of my office and my ability to perform my duties."
She added giving separate authority to separate officials "prevents politically-sensitive commissioners from cutting back-room, sweetheart deals with well-connected taxpayers that aren't available to others and from just ignoring the law altogether."
In a separate letter to Horn, city staff attorney Jennifer Bock asked the treasurer to reconsider her decision to withhold the tax money from the city.
She said the city thinks Horn's decision to withhold the most recent tax payment from Steamboat was made "without due process of law."
Bock also questioned Horn's authority to withhold the payment without the decision being authorized by the county commissioners.
Horn denied the city's informal appeal and stood by the decision to withhold the tax money.
"A county treasurer does not need permission from a Board of County Commissioners to perform the duties of her office," she responded to Bock.
Since the tax issue first made headlines, Horn has offered more details about the situation.
She said the erroneous process for calculating road and bridge taxes that are distributed to the city was established by Routt County's finance director back in 2004, and the error went undiscovered for more than 13 years.
She added audits failed to discovere the error, and the treasurer’s office moved quickly to correct it once it was found.
The Steamboat Springs City Council is set to get a briefing on the ongoing tax issue Tuesday.
Asked to react to what has transpired so far, Council President Jason Lacy said he was disappointed with how Horn has been communicating with the city regarding the tax issue.
Lacy said the letter from Horn informing the city of her decision to withhold the money "came out of the blue," and he would have preferred getting a courtesy call.
"It's too bad Brita chose this approach instead of just picking up the phone or walking down (to City Hall) and sitting down with (city finance director) Kim Weber or (city manager) Gary Suiter," Lacy said. "Sending us a letter saying you owe us more than $100,000 is not what I would expect in a small, tight-knit community like this."
"Everyone at the county outside of Ms. Horn has been very receptive and kind as part of this issue, and they want to resolve it in the right way and talk about it instead of sending a letter," Lacy added.
Asked to respond to Lacy's concerns about the communication between her office and the city, Horn said she would be willing to have a conversation with Lacy when he addressed her directly with his concerns.
"I can understand his anxiety; however, I have not heard from him to date," she said.
Horn’s debate with the commissioners over her handling of the tax issue comes almost two years after the two office’s clashed over Horn’s handling of overdue property tax payments from Peabody Energy.
In the end, Horn’s handling of the issue and her ability to obtain interest from the energy giant on its overdue tax payments drew praise from the editorial board of the Denver Post.