Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Do tax hikes mean county is less conservative?

BOB STEPHENS Updated: November 12, 2012 at 12:00 am

Long known as a bastion of conservatism, El Paso County is stocked with citizens proud of their “no tax, less government” reputation.

Is that changing? Did results of last week’s election signal a shift in the landscape?

Voters approved seven of eight ballot questions that proposed a tax increase or extension.

“Voters seemed to be in a very generous mood,” said Manitou Springs Mayor Marc Snyder. “I was a little surprised.”

Among those not surprised was Bob Loevy, Colorado College professor emeritus of political science. He said three months ago that voters would likely approve two county-wide tax questions, one to provide money to fund the sheriff’s office and another to fund road and bridge improvements by renewing a Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority tax first passed in 2004.

“Voters will most likely approve when it has to do with airports, roads, and police and fire services.” Loevy said.

Four election issues were about fire protection, two for roads and one for the sheriff.

“I was surprised so many of those passed, especially in this economic climate,” said county commissioner Amy Lathen, who represents the eastern part of the county.

Lathen, a long-time conservative, insists that winds of change are not blowing in the county.

“I’m not seeing any from my constituency,” she said. “If we’d asked for some social program, I don’t think voters would’ve approved it.”

Lathen attributed the passage of tax increases to more trust in local government.

“Transparency is a key,” she said, “and delivering what is promised.”

Others feel change is coming slowly to the area.

“Change is always going on, whether we’re aware of it or not,” Snyder said. “The demographics of the county are changing. I suspect a lot of unaffiliated voters are moving here — not the anti-tax, anti-government types — and they’re more pragmatic about our needs.”

County engineer Andre’ Brackin agrees.

“I think the county has changed a lot the last 10 years,” he said. “A lot of people have moved here from California and other places and they’ve seen how other local governments work and have different expectations. That poses a challenge for our local governments because expectations are much higher than what they can provide with the budgets we have. And expectations are growing — I can see that from the calls I get.”

County administrator Jeff Greene said confidence in government and the local economy is growing. He was part of a panel addressing “qualify of life indicators” for the Pikes Peak region last week. Less than 30 percent of survey respondents in 2011 felt the local economy was better than the national economy, but in 2012 43 percent felt it was better.

As for voters approving tax increases, Greene said, “People are making an investment in our local governments. They’re expressing confidence.”

Tax increases to pay for fire protection were passed by voters in the Tri-Lakes Monument area, Security Widefield, and the Southwestern Highway 115 district.

Calhan seemingly passed a tax increase for road and bridge repair, although county clerk and recorder Wayne Williams won’t certify the election until Nov. 23. There are about 12,000 ballots still to be tabulated and the Calhan tax increase has a slim seven-vote lead.

Manitou Springs approved a tax hike to join the Pikes Peak Library District, and agreed to use surplus taxes to improve city parks rather than return the money to voters.

The only tax measure defeated in the election was in Fountain, where voters declined to up the ante to help the fire department. That surprised Fountain Mayor Jeri Howells.

“I was totally disappointed,” Howells said. “I thought it was going to pass, mainly because it’s so needed.”

Contact Bob Stephens: 636-0276 Twitter @bobgstephens

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