Colorado Springs City Council passes veto-proof budget

By Monica Mendoza Updated: December 10, 2013 at 8:45 pm • Published: December 10, 2013 | 8:15 pm 0

Two Colorado Springs City Council members changed their vote Tuesday to ensure a veto-proof 2014 city budget.

Eight council members approved the 2014 general fund budget of $245 million with a provision that limits the mayor's ability to move money within the budget. Council member Helen Collins cast the dissenting vote.

In November, the budget with the provision was approved 6-3 on first reading. But council members Val Snider and Joel Miller changed their votes for the second and final reading, to tighten the chances of keeping the mayor out of the budget.

In a work session Tuesday, just before the City Council meeting, council members played out the possible scenarios, including a mayor's veto and its effect on the Dec. 31 budget-approval deadline.

Mayor Steve Bach still can veto any line item within the budget ordinance or veto the entire budget. But Council can block a veto with a super majority - six votes or more - which it has.

Bach offered no response Tuesday, but City Chief of Staff Laura Neumann said Bach will host a press conference Wednesday and is expected to discuss the budget then.

The mayor has one more strategy available.

He could challenge the decision City Council made last month to increase appropriations departments from five to 12, a move intended to limit the mayor's ability to move money within the budget.

Two deputy city attorneys told the council in recent weeks that increasing appropriations departments interferes with the mayor's executive authority and violates the separation of powers intended in the city's charter. They advised the council not to make the change.

As it stands, the mayor can move money within a department any time throughout the year without seeking the council's approval. Council members said they were concerned that money is moved and spent on items not approved in the budget, including bonuses for executive leadership.

"It's not micro-managing to have us be more transparent to the community," said council woman Jill Gaebler. "If they want to move money from parks to roads, they should have to come to us so we can communicate that to the community."

Council President Keith King said the budget and the provision that limits money movement is a compromise and swings power back to City Council. King has maintained from the beginning of his term in April that the mayor had taken more power than the city's charter allowed.

"We've come a long way in eight months," King said. "We have established ourselves as a presence."

The mayor also has not responded to the council's other budgetary decisions, including a decision to move about $400,000 from the police department's proposed budget and $565,000 from the city's 2013 reserve fund to cover a city parks watering budget shortfall.

In all, the council made 18 amendments to the mayor's proposed budget. Council opted not to add a deputy director in the Office of Emergency Management and it will use $150,000 from the Conservation Trust Fund to pay for park rangers instead of the city Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax, as proposed by the mayor.

The city budget also withholds half of $2.6 million slated for the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau and half of the $70,000 for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance until those organizations can show the council how the money is spent.

In a separate action, the council voted 6-3 to approve a $1.15 billion Colorado Springs Utilities budget, which includes a 3.4 percent increase in electric rates and a 2.2 percent increase in natural gas rates, effective Jan. 1.

Of the $1.15 billion Utilities budget the most contentious point was the $760,000 Community Investment Fund, which provides money to city sponsored events, nonprofit organizations and the Regional Business Alliance. Council approved $18,000 from the fund for the Project Citizens' Option to Provide Energy, which helps customers pay their utilities bills. But the rest of the fund is in on hold.

Jason Wood, United Way CEO, implored the council to reconsider its hold on the Community Investment Fund. He said the nonprofit organizations that receive money from Utilities help families stay in their homes and pay their bills.

"By what you are doing, there will be an impact," he said.

The Business Alliance was slated to receive $240,000 from the fund but a majority of the council members said they don't like the idea of spending public money on private organizations, especially when it makes political endorsements, such as supporting the City for Champion's proposal, which is also supported by the mayor.

Council will continue discussing the merits of the Community Investment Fund and try to make a final decision early next year. Council members Gaebler and Jan Martin voted against the utility budget, saying they did not want to withhold money from nonprofit organizations.

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