Cracking the books 

Bruce loses, vows appeal in library lawsuit

click to enlarge Jose Aponte, director of the Pikes Peak Library District. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Jose Aponte, director of the Pikes Peak Library District.

Having been shot down by a lower court, Douglas Bruce is appealing his lawsuit against the Pikes Peak Library District that officials say would have dealt a crippling blow to its finances and forced library closures.

Bruce, who was elected to the El Paso County Board of Commissioners in November, filed his lawsuit in December 2003. The suit alleged the library district, with 11 locations in the region, illegally collected millions of dollars in tax revenue after the 1992 passage of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR), a law Bruce wrote.

On Nov. 22, El Paso County District Court Judge Thomas Kane disagreed, finding that, of a $20 million annual budget, the library district had collected $8,430 more in taxes than allowed by TABOR in 2003. The district, the judge ruled, had reached "substantial compliance" with the law. Bruce filed his appeal shortly after Kane handed down his decision.

"With all due respect to [Bruce], I believe that this is a truly frivolous waste of the citizens resources," said Jose Aponte, the library district's executive director, referring to the yearlong fight against the lawsuit.

Vision check

Aponte estimated the district has already spent $150,000 to fight off Bruce's suit. That amount will rise, he noted, due to the anti-tax activist-turned elected official's decision to appeal. "It would seem to me that the watchdog needs to have [his] vision checked."

But Bruce, who has filed TABOR-related lawsuits against other government agencies in the 12 years since Colorado voters approved his amendment, suggested that the library did not need to hire "expensive" lawyers in its defense.

"For them to spend $150,000 on [the suit] ... means the library was run by fools," said Bruce, who will be sworn into office next Tuesday, Jan. 11. "If it was frivolous it can be dismissed ... just on the face of it."

Bruce blamed the library district and what he called its "illegal revenue increase" for costing taxpayers money.

In his suit, Bruce claimed that the library district violated TABOR in three ways.

That the library district's four-tenths of 1 percent property tax that voters approved in 1986 brought in revenue beyond what was allowed by Bruce's 1992 Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

That the library district increased revenues at a rate higher than allowed by TABOR during the years 1999 to 2003.

That the library district signed contracts for copiers and computers, as well as signing leases to rent facilities, creating multiyear debts that were banned by TABOR.

"We've won unequivocally on all three tenets of the plaintiff's suit," Aponte said, referring to Bruce's charges.

But the library district did admit to increasing revenue by $8,430 more than the TABOR cap in 2003 due to an accounting error. The district pledged to repay the money to taxpayers.

Judge Kane ruled that this amount, when compared to the almost $15 million the district was allowed to collect that year "is minimal compared with the total figures and is an isolated incident in one of five fiscal years."

"There is no evidence before the court that the district has engaged in a systematic disregard of the requirements of TABOR," Kane wrote in the decision.

Won't' back down

Aponte said that had Bruce been successful in his lawsuit, the library district would have been hit with cuts totaling in the millions of dollars, shrinking its annual budget from $20 million to $16 million. That reduction would mean closing library branches such as Rockrimmon, Fountain or Sand Creek and reducing hours at remaining branches.

In the wake of Kane's ruling against him, Bruce says he fundamentally disagrees with the judge's interpretation of the law. He continues to maintain the library "stole" money from the taxpayers. "There's no substantial compliance in TABOR when it comes to collecting illegal revenue," he said.

Under TABOR, government agencies must secure voter approval for any tax hikes and revenue increases. The law requires government agencies found in violation to return illegally collected money to the taxpayers with 10 percent annual interest.

Though he lost the suit, Bruce continues to maintain that the library district was in violation. He further cites elections held in 1992, 1995 and 2003 -- when ballot issues related to the library district lost at the polls -- as evidence the voters don't support increasing the library tax.

When asked if he would support shuttering libraries, Bruce says the state's constitution is a higher priority than keeping libraries open.

And while Bruce continues to appeal the court's decision, the library district will likely need to eat its expenses fighting him, thanks largely to Bruce's own handiwork.

"Because of the way TABOR is structured," Aponte noted, "the plaintiff cannot be held accountable for legal fees."


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