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A new era for city, county relations?

April 21, 2011

It’s no secret that the relationship between elected city and county officials has been strained in recent years.

The five El Paso County commissioners and nine Colorado Springs City Council members have butted heads over such issues as whether the county could help the city save the historic Pioneers Museum, which was in danger of closing; and whether the city would let county staff share office space with city employees.

Neither of those happened.

Members of both elected groups also periodically have flung public criticisms at one another. Last fall, former Vice Mayor Larry Small blasted county officials about a proposal to move their offices to the Regional Development Center.

Also last year, Commissioner Amy Lathen wrote an op/ed piece in The Gazette, claiming that then-City Councilman Sean Paige supported full legalization of marijuana, which Paige said wasn’t true, demanding a retraction.

It’s been nearly two years since elected city and county leaders got together for a combined meeting, which had been a tradition.

While the spats have been public, behind-the-scenes work has resulted in several city-county collaborations.

And a new day seems to be dawning. Two new commissioners took office in January, one of whom was on City Council. Six new City Council members were elected this month to join one incumbent and two existing members. A new mayor will be elected May 17.

That changing of the guards has created a growing sentiment of collaboration.

The issue surfaced on both the county and city campaign trails, said Stephannie Finley, president of the Governmental Affairs and Public Policy Division of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce.

“The first question in our political action committee interviews with candidates was their vision for the city, and the second was how they would work with the county and civic organizations — because relationships matter,” she said. “Stubbornness can halt progress, and we’ve had a lot of stubborn people.”

Commissioners Peggy Littleton and Darryl Glenn, who took office in January, both campaigned on the importance of the city and county working cohesively.

Littleton made the topic a focus at her first town hall meeting, April 16. Four City Council members and three other commissioners attended, as Littleton gave an overview of county operations and presented a possible list of services that the city and county could share.

Commission Chairwoman Lathen asked the chamber to sponsor a city-county public meeting, which will take place Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at Regional Development Center. The event is free and will be a brainstorming session for shared services.

And two commissioners and two City Council members will travel with the chamber May 3-6 to Oklahoma City, which Finley said is considered a model of city-county partnerships.

The movement is infusing hope among those who support the work of the region’s top leaders.  

“You have two elected bodies now that are so raring to go,” Finley said. “I love that people are saying, ‘We’re ready to talk and roll up our sleeves and do what’s right for the community.’”

Finley said what’s needed on the part of both groups is an understanding and acceptance of their differences.

County government is an arm of the state, and its commissioners are partisan and elected through their political parties. Commissioners represent the interests of the entire county and are paid $87,000 a year.

City Council is nonpartisan, nearly twice the size of the commission and operates under a more independent home rule charter that serves the city of Colorado Springs.

Members are paid $6,250 a year.

Sharing services doesn’t mean combining the city and county, as in Denver, said Commissioner Sallie Clark.

“We don’t want to lose our identities,” she said.

Besides, Littleton said, meshing the county and the city of Colorado Springs entirely would require a statewide voter approval and would be difficult, given that there are seven other cities within the county.

Despite their differences, the two bodies have been able to accomplish several joint projects in recent years, including a successful 2004 ballot initiative for a rural transportation authority to fund road construction and maintenance in the region, and building the Regional Development Center, which serves area developers and builders.

In October 2009 the last time elected city and county leaders got together, a joint Shared Services Task Force formed. Clark and then City Councilman Glenn took the lead to work with respective staffs and see what services could be combined.

They made progress, Clark said. The county took over the city’s facilities maintenance contract from Colorado Springs Utilities. Other collaborations: Snow removal, fire fighting services, parks and trails maintenance, a fuels contract, an Emergency Services Agency, transportation planning, the Fountain Creek Water District and several law enforcement partnerships. Those include the hazardous materials unit, detox services, jail bookings and a regional effort to enforce liquor code laws.

Saving money isn’t the only goal, Clark said.

“It’s about looking at how we can improve the services to the community,” she said. “We tried to come up with a list and see what made sense for efficiencies of scale.”  

The task force suspended meetings in recent months, awaiting new city leadership. But now, county officials are eager to move forward.

Possibilities abound, Clark said, from creating a centralized call center where residents — whether they live in Colorado Springs city limits, the unincorporated county or another city in the county — could call to report a pot hole or other road issue.

Also on the list are combining human resources and accounting departments, having one contract for animal control services, designing one Web portal and expanding procurement contracts.

Nick Kittle, public works team leader for the city of Colorado Springs, was part of a group that evaluated shared fleet operations, such as storing street division materials in one location. He also is involved with a move to enhance regional recycling.

“Things are going in the right direction,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement, but everyone has been open to looking for opportunities.”

Councilman Merv Bennett, who took office last week, said while he favors exploring all ideas, he’d like to see an exit strategy, in case some don’t pan out or circumstances change.

 “When you assume your partner’s assets, you also assume their liabilities,” he said.

“We don’t know what those are yet, but we’ll need to respect those.”

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