What is a metro district anyway?

Highlands Ranch governing body provides resources, services

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In some ways, the Highlands Ranch Metro District is not so different from other governing bodies, such as towns or cities.

They all collect taxes, have elected representatives and provide services for the community. That's about as far as it goes in terms of what these governments have in common, though.

It can be confusing to sort through the ways the metro district operates, where tax revenue goes and how the whole thing works. That's why the Highlands Ranch Herald sat down with members of the metro district to answer a few common questions.

What does the metro district provide for the community?

The 38-year-old metro district offers resources and services to the community including road and traffic signal construction; most arterial road landscaping and fencing; and snow plowing for major sidewalks and trails.

The metro district also manages the Highlands Ranch mansion and local parks.

The district also provides a variety of outdoor recreation activities, senior activities and the maintenance of about 2,500 acres of open space.

The district used to offer fire and emergency services until January 2019, when voters decided to join the South Metro Fire Rescue district.

What doesn't HRMD provide?

Unlike cities, the metro district doesn't provide law enforcement, a judge, a zoning/planning board or any type of animal services. Most of these are provided to the area by the Douglas County government, said Terry Nolan, the metro district general manager.

Why stay a metro district?

When Highlands Ranch began as a master-planned community in 1981, it was developed as an unincorporated area in Douglas County.

The community has remained as a metro district because all community services are already provided by either the county, the metro district or the community association, Nolan said.

“What is it you're missing that you want to pay another $500 a year for? In my opinion, in Highlands Ranch there isn't a good answer to that because we're very well provided for,” Nolan said.

One common argument for becoming incorporated is the need for local control in zoning and planning, Nolan said. Because Highlands Ranch is a master-planned community and plans have already been determined, this isn't an issue, he said.

About 20 years ago, the University of Denver did a study on what would happen if Highlands Ranch became a city and found that it would cost 3% more sales tax, he said.

What's the deal with taxes?

One major difference between a city and the metro district is how they bring in revenue. In cities, a large source of funding usually comes from sales tax. For Highlands Ranch, the main tax revenue comes from property taxes, or the mill levy.

The metro district has four other sources of income: specific ownership taxes (such as license plate fees), developer fees, state lottery funds (parks, open space and recreation dollars) and fees for local programs and facilities.

Pre-development fees are a significant portion of revenue, costing about $35,000 per acre, Nolan said.

Most of this revenue goes to paying for the metro district's 85 employees and the services they provide. The remaining revenue pays for things like infrastructure and community debt.

How are local decisions made?

The seven members of the board of directors make most of the metro district decisions. Each member has a four-year term and makes $100 per meeting, Nolan said.

Board members approve the budget, hire employees, make policy decisions and approve capital projects, among other decisions.

How to learn more?

In early 2020, the metro district will offer a two-month program called HR Citizens Academy, which will educate attendees on how the district operates and local issues, and also will offer opportunities for civic involvement.

An application for the program is available at HighlandsRanch.org/community/highlands-ranch-citizens-academy/.

More information on the program is available by contacting Sherry Eppers at seppers@highlandsranch.org

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