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Colorado Springs mayor on a winning streak asking voters for money

November 8, 2017 Updated: November 9, 2017 at 11:10 am
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photo - The mayor of Colorado Springs, John Suthers, posed for a portrait in his office at the City Administration Building on Wednesday November 8, 2017 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).
The mayor of Colorado Springs, John Suthers, posed for a portrait in his office at the City Administration Building on Wednesday November 8, 2017 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).  

When John Suthers was elected Colorado Springs mayor in 2015, he said he inherited crumbling roads and long-neglected stormwater infrastructure.

A $1 billion deficit in infrastructure needs, along with short-staffed police and fire departments and unsatisfactory emergency response times, represented a significant liability for the city and a safety risk for residents.

So the conservative mayor, a former Colorado attorney general and self-proclaimed "limited government guy," took the most realistic route he could see: He asked for money.

Tuesday night, voters approved Suthers' third and largest request, a controversial set of stormwater fees.

While some might argue that Suthers is a "tax-and-spend" politician, others say the two issues passed earlier have shown a return on the taxpayers' investments.

"Basically, what I've been doing is trying to fix this hole that we dug for ourselves," Suthers said Tuesday night after hearing that voters passed the stormwater fees, which appeared on El Paso County's ballot as Issue 2A. "These are essential government services. This is not fluff stuff."

The city began digging itself into a financial hole in 1991 when anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce led a successful effort to kill a half-cent sales tax in Colorado Springs, Suthers said. That lost revenue, totaling nearly $1 billion, would have gone a long way in keeping city services up to par.

Bruce, who declined to comment, has served as a persistent thorn in Suthers' side. His most notable accomplishment, writing the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR, severely restricts how much money governments in the state can keep. He also has gone on the offensive multiple times, slamming Suthers and his requests for more money.

First came 2C, a ballot issue approved in 2015, dedicating $250 million evenly divided over five years to repair streets, curbs and gutters. As that headed to the ballot, Bruce cried foul over technicalities and claimed the revenue would be spent on a downtown stadium instead of roads.

Now many of the city's main arteries have new life, and in 2C's second full year, the work is ahead of schedule and running more efficiently than anticipated, Public Works Director Travis Easton said in August. Enough money likely will be left over when the tax expires in 2020 to fund an extra round of projects.

City Auditor Denny Nester said Colorado Springs has "definitely" benefited from the revenue generated by 2C.

City Councilman Don Knight, who supported 2C, agreed but said it's important to keep an eye on the newly paved streets to ensure that quality of the work is good.

Ballot Issue 2, approved this April, and set aside $12 million in excess revenue, split between 2017 and 2018, for stormwater projects. Again, Bruce attacked the proposal, calling it a flagrant violation of TABOR.

Knight, who also supported Issue 2, said the excess revenue is helping pay for 71 stormwater projects, which reduce the flow of damaging floodwaters and pollutants to downstream communities that led to lawsuits against the city.

But Knight opposed 2A, arguing that the two previous initiatives gave  the city enough money to meet stormwater obligations. He was joined in his opposition by Councilmen Bill Murray and Andy Pico.

Despite his opposition, the voters have spoken by approving 2A, Knight said.

The stormwater fees are expected to raise as much as $18 million a year. That revenue will free money in the city's general fund already allocated for the work.

"Now that we have extra money we can move around, it's a lot better position to be in than trying to find dollars from a lesser pot," Knight said. "Now we need to concentrate on using that extra money to the best benefit of the citizens."

Suthers proposes using the newly freed general fund money to hire 20 police officers, eight firefighters and two other positions in the Fire Department next year. He also will set aside $1 million for administrative costs associated with implementing the fees and another $1 million for the city's reserves.

City budgets in subsequent years will reveal Suthers' priorities with the freed general fund money. He says his long-term goals of bolstering the police and fire departments will not change.

Suthers argues that he's still a "pretty conservative Republican" who fought to provide core services. Part of the challenge to do that was convincing voters of stormwater's importance, despite the fact it's not a "sexy" issue. He attributes part of that success to his high approval rating among voters and openness with the city's electorate.

Suthers said he anticipates his next request for money will come in the form of a 2C renewal, though likely with a lower tax rate.

Knight said it makes sense to use extra revenue in the general fund to pay for work on streets and to lower tax rates for any possible 2C renewal.

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