In what has become a familiar refrain in the run-up to the April 4 Colorado Springs city election, Mayor John Suthers on Saturday defended making long-neglected stormwater projects a top priority while arguing for passage of a ballot measure that would provide additional funding.
Opposing him in the debate over Issue 2 was Councilman Bill Murray, who argued that public safety should be a higher priority for the city.
The debate was held at the local headquarters of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People, a co-sponsor along with the Citizens Project and League of Women Voters.
Councilman Keith King and former Councilman John Hazlehurst debated ballot Issue 1, which would amend the City Charter to require a supermajority vote to sell a "substantial" amount of Colorado Springs Utilities holdings.
Suthers has been the first city leader in many years to wage a full-court press for stormwater improvements. In 2009, the city eliminated its Stormnwater Enterprise and the fees that provided about $15.5 million annually.
Issue 2 would let the city keep $6 million this year and another $6 million next year in tax revenue deemed surplus by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.
Suthers said the money will give the city an edge now, in good economic times, because it has to spend an average of $17 million a year on stormwater even if the economy takes a downturn. That's because of a $460 million, 20-year intergovernmental agreement with Pueblo County, which threatened to stop Utilities' $825 million Southern Delivery System unless the two governments reached a truce on stormwater.
City surplus tax revenue is expected to reach at least $9 million this year and next year. The remainder of the tax surplus would be refunded to residents on their Utilities bills.
Murray, a former firefighter, cited severe hardships in the city's public safety network.
"Fifteen of 100 calls to 911 aren't even answered," he said. "Police have an 11½-minute response time and 60 vacant positions. The things in health and safety that concern you by the moment, we're not doing."
Last year, he said, the mayor advised the council to take $500 million from the police and fire departments to balance the budget. (It was $500,000.)
"This particular money (in Issue 2) is a Band-Aid on the (stormwater) problem," Murray said.
"Nobody's suing us because we don't have enough fire trucks," Suthers countered, referring to a lawsuit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Health Department filed against the city over water quality violations and stormwater program shortfalls.
"We have two legal issues we're trying to resolve around stormwater," the mayor said. Aside from the lawsuit, "We put it (stormwater) into Fountain Creek, it goes into the Arkansas River, the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico. It's time to start dealing with this."
El Paso County Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr. asked why the city is asking to keep tax money from two years. "How do we know what our priorities are going to be in the next years?"
"We have a good idea of priorities," Suthers said. "It costs about $400,000 for another election. The majority of the council and I feel this is an ongoing obligation, so we can save $400,000 by doing this for two years."
"If I don't have to come back to you," Murray said, "it makes it easier to use it anywhere we want to. Stormwater has a tendency to drift to other projects. The Olympic Museum and infrastructure, maybe other projects. ... Anybody here vote on that ($460 million intergovernmental agreement)?"
"You did," Suthers said.
"I voted in favor," Murray said, "because the mayor said it was the only way to address this problem. Now this money is starting to encroach upon the health and safety of our community."
Issue 1, which King proposed, would require a supermajority, 60 percent vote of the people - rather than a simple 50 percent plus one vote - to let Utilities sell a "substantial" portion of its assets.
King said his constituents named keeping Utilities city-owned as their top issue. "It provides tremendous economic opportunity and control of the product for customers," King said.
Hazlehurst, who writes for the Colorado Springs Business Journal, said that in a democracy, the majority should rule, and that doesn't mean a 60 percent vote. "If it's 59.5 percent, we're out of luck."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that Murray's reference to $500 million was incorrect; the figure was $500,000.