Colorado Springs city hall's intramural budget battle may end up in court

By Monica Mendoza Updated: December 8, 2013 at 8:40 am • Published: December 7, 2013 | 4:25 pm 0

As Colorado Springs city councilors march toward a final 2014 budget this week they may encounter legal objections from the executive branch that need to be settled in court.

Despite stern warnings from the city attorney's office that the council was interfering with the mayor's executive authority and violating the separation of powers, the council voted 6-3 to limit the mayor's ability to move money once the budget is approved.

Deputy City Attorney Britt Haley told the council she could not be sure how a judge would view the move, but recommended that council back off "to avoid the risk of adverse judicial determination."

Councilman Merv Bennett did not flinch. He said if the budget changes are challenged in court by the executive branch, so be it.

"If that is where it ends up, well that helps us answer a lot of questions and I'm not afraid of that," Bennett said. "We are learning a new system of government and there will be checks and balances."

The council is expected to finalize a budget Tuesday and put its mark on the city's balance of power under the new form of council-mayor government, which voters approved in November 2010.

To residents, the changes to the city's budget process, which has been in place for two years, may seem like political posturing. But Councilman Don Knight said the council is trying to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent on the items approved in the budget. He cited the example from this year when Mayor Steve Bach gave $25,000 bonuses to the city attorney and the city chief of staff, and neither bonus was listed in the approved budget.

Because the mayor is allowed to move money within a department, the council increased the number of departments from five to 12, thereby limiting the money movement.

"Why bother going through the budget process, when mayor can move money?" Councilman Andy Pico said. He voted with majority in favor of the budget department changes.

The mayor can veto the budget ordinance that lists the new 12 departments. But council appears to be veto-proof with its 6-3 vote or a supermajority, which is needed to override a veto.

Bach declined to comment on the council's new budget process until after the final readingTuesday. He plans to hold a news conference Wednesday.

In November, Bach said he hoped the council would follow the charter and respect past practice.

"This is my third budget," he said. "The previous two years have gone swimmingly well."

He said the 2014 budget was presented in the same way the budget had been presented in the past two years, and he's not sure why councilors are objecting now.

The council agreed with 99 percent of the mayor's proposed $245 million general operating fund budget, Knight said. The council made 18 amendments, including taking about $400,000 out of the proposed increase for the police department budget and moving it to the parks' watering budget.

The council also will take $565,000 from the city's reserve fund for the rest of the $1.13 million needed to pay the full $4 million parks watering bill. Other changes to the mayor's budget include hire a new deputy director in the Office of Emergency Management and it will use $150,000 from the Conservation Trust Fund to pay for park rangers in the Garden of the Gods Park and Helen Hunt Falls.

"It's a fact that the relationship between council and the mayor have been strained especially over the budget - the execution of the budget," Knight said. "But when you look at the details, council moved less than $1.5 million, less than fourth tenths percent."

Under the budget process changes, the mayor would need a council resolution to move money from one of the 12 departments to another. Knight said that's not a big hardship on the executive branch, and he disagreed with the city attorney's office that the council is unlawfully interfering with the executive branch authority. "This is another case of the concerns we've had all along - we get opinions from the city attorney that don't express the pros and cons of both sides," Knight said.

It may be time to change the city's charter, said Barry Baum, a retired business executive and member of the volunteer City Committee, which provides budget and financial feedback to the mayor, council and staff. Until the charter is made clear on budget issues the council and mayor could keep going around and around, he said. Amendments to the city's charter need to be approved by voters.

"I think we've got to do something to clarify the charter," Baum said. "This is ridiculous - lobbing grenades at one another."

The vast majority of municipal governments in the U.S. are organized under the City Council/city manager form of government, said Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League - a nonprofit organization that provides advocacy, information and training for municipal government.

Colorado Springs is one of three in the state in recent years that made a move to change its form of government and the only one that was successful, Mamet said. In Pueblo and in Wheat Ridge, voters did approve proposed governance changes.

"I would classify this as part of the evolving nature of a new system of government under a charter that may at some point have to be further clarified," he said.

Municipal charters are living, breathing documents, he said, and sometimes the players must duke it out over the details.

"The (Colorado Springs) charter does have directives spelled out as it relates to the budget prerogative," Mamet said. "They have become subject to interpretation because of the executive and legislative attitudes. The only way to clarify is with a consensus between the executive and legislative branches, or more explicit language in the charter or a court determination."

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