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Some council members restless over mayor's budget powers

November 6, 2013 Updated: November 7, 2013 at 7:29 am
photo - Mayor Steve Bach.   Photo by Junfu Han. The Gazette.
Mayor Steve Bach. Photo by Junfu Han. The Gazette. 

As promised when they took office in April, Colorado Springs City Council members are moving to strip Mayor Steve Bach of his line-item veto power.

Council member Don Knight is calling the proposed move a restoration of balance in city government. He said over the past two years the previous councils gave the mayor power over the city's budget that is not outlined in the City Charter.

"This removes power from the mayor that council had relinquished," Knight said.

But Deputy City Attorney Tom Florczak characterized the proposal as an effort to subvert the checks and balance of city government that voters approved in November 2010 with the new form of mayor-council government. The move, which appears to be a procedural cleanup, would "deprive the mayor of the line item veto," Florczak told council earlier this week during a budget mark-up meeting. And that, he said, would violate the intent of the City Charter.

Bach, the first mayor elected under the new form of government, is the city's CEO in place of a city manager and he has exercised his line-item veto power. Bach was unavailable for comment.

In February 2012, City Attorney Chris Melcher wrote an opinion that said the mayor could refuse to spend money that the City Council appropriated, even if a super majority voted to override the mayor's veto. The mayor's veto power was a point of contention with council when Bach did not immediately recognize council budget amendments, including the council's desire to add two code enforcement officers.

Knight, who heads up the council's budget committee, laid out a proposed change that would require the council to vote on two budget ordinances - one would approve the budget in its entirety and one would approve the money. Under the current budget approval procedure, the council votes on the budget and money in a single ordinance - the same way that budgets are approved by most city councils, state lawmakers and Congress.

Under that system, the mayor brings council his proposed budget. Council can add or delete a program and send the budget back to the mayor. He can veto any of the council's amendments and council can override his veto with a super majority.

Under the proposed budget procedures, the mayor would have to veto the entire budget or an entire department's budget if he did not like one item the council added or deleted, Knight said. "There is nothing in the charter that gives the executive veto over every council amendment," Knight said. "Our changes are a package: Either accept them or veto the whole package."

Council will host a special workshop in the coming weeks to discuss this proposed budget procedure change, and four others, in at effort to have the new policies approved by Nov. 26, when council is set to vote on Bach's 2014 budget. In play is council's recommendation not to add a deputy director in the Office of Emergency Management and send the $123,183 back into the general fund. Council also will recommend cutting about $650,000 from the 2014 proposed $82 million Police Department budget and use that money to pay for half of the parks' watering bill. Council would take the other half from the city's reserve - a proposal that Bach may not like.

But not all council members are sold on the budget procedure changes. Although most council members have expressed concern that the city attorney's interpretation of the City Charter favors executive leadership, some council members are not ready to make such a shift in the balance of power - at least not right now.

"We have a whole new council and whole new form of government," said council member Jan Martin. "I think before we start making major changes, and this would be major, we need to settle in and work with it for a while and decide what changes we would like to see."

Martin doesn't object to the mayor's line-item veto power and calls it a normal part of the give and take in the budget process. She proposed tabling the discussion on the budget process changes until the first quarter of 2014. Trying to make such major decisions in 19 days leading to budget approval is too rushed, she said. Council members Merv Bennett, Val Snider, and Jill Gaebler agreed.

"Every bone in my body says take time to study this," Gaebler said. "I'm not ready. I want to go through a (budget) cycle - it's one of the biggest things we do."

Council member Joel Miller says there's no time like the present. Delaying a decision means the 2014 budget process is business as usual. Council president Keith King and council member Helen Collins agreed.

"There was outrage on how the past two budget cycles went," Miller said.

One of the other proposed changes would create more appropriations departments. Now, there are five departments and money cannot be moved from one department to another. Money can be moved within a department. But, if there were 20 departments, it would limit the mayor's ability to move money and ensure that money was spent as outlined in the budget, Miller said.

"If we don't do it now, we might as well punt and complain later," Miller said.

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