In a panel peppered with audience interjections, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and a School District 11 representative squared off Tuesday against high-profile anti-tax advocates on a pair of ballot measures soon coming to a vote.
At issue were a set of stormwater fees proposed for the city and appearing as Issue 2A on El Paso County's November ballot and a $42 million mill levy override for District 11, which appears as Issue 3E.
The stormwater fees would charge homeowners $5 and nonresidential property owners $30 a month for each acre they own. They are expected to raise $17 million a year for the city's stormwater obligations, freeing general fund money that Suthers said he wants to spend hiring new police officers and firefighters.
The mill levy override would cost homeowners about $3.75 a month per $100,000 of property value and go toward school maintenance, higher salaries and more employees, among other things.
Passing 2A is essential if the city is to continue funding essential services while also addressing newer problems, Suthers said. The Police Department's response times are well below the national average, a problem that is exacerbated by a shortage of uniformed officers, he said. Over the next five years, Suthers said he wants to hire as many as 120 new officers, which is unlikely without voters approving 2A.
In addition, the fees would help the city resolve an ongoing state and federal lawsuit addressing contaminated stormwater runoff affecting Pueblo County and other downstream communities, Suthers said.
Of the largest 50 cities in the country, Suthers said Colorado Springs - number 40 - is the only one without a dedicated funding source for stormwater obligations.
However, Laura Carno, former campaign chief of staff for Suthers’ predecessor Steve Bach, said the city has enough money to continue funding its stormwater obligations out of the general fund. She said the three City Council members - Don Knight, Andy Pico and Bill Murray - who oppose 2A also sit on the city's budget committee and support that claim.
The city is slated to hire 17 new employees, according to the proposed budget for 2018, Carno said. And "not one of those is wearing a uniform."
Carno said the fees are not equal, that owners of large properties might get breaks from the city and that the bills might increase.
Suthers argued that the city has been transparent with the process and while increases are unlikely, they would amount to a "fractional" sum of money, such as an increase from $5 to $5.10.
In his closing remarks, Suthers said Colorado Springs is the Front Range city with the smallest tax burden - a comment that drew a "that's not true," from anti-tax advocate Douglas Bruce in the audience.
Shortly after his interjection, Bruce switched seats with Carno and Lauren Hug, a campaign manager for District 11 took Suthers' seat.
Early on, Bruce, who was convicted of felony tax evasion and filing a false tax return in 2012, tried to backtrack and correct some of Suthers' statements. The attempt was met with displeasure from the audience.
"You're undermining your own credibility" one audience member said as Bruce spoke out.
"I understand, I've got a hostile audience," Bruce responded, noting he was reluctant to participate in the panel initially.
After the moderator, John Hazlehurst of the Colorado Springs Business Journal, asked Bruce and the audience to remain on task, Bruce began addressing 3E as a "blank check."
Hug, however, called the issue an investment in the city's central school district, which has problems with aging buildings and a shortage of teachers.
"This is not an investment, because you never get your money back," Bruce retorted.
Colorado Springs is a national leader in the cybersecurity field, but lacks a workforce needed to fill the jobs, Hug said. Passing 3E would help prepare D-11's students for the future and keep the buildings in good shape, she said.
From the audience, Ryan Macoubrie said he was leaning toward supporting both 2A and 3E. After the meeting, he was furtherconvinced. Much of that was due to Bruce's willingness to argue with the audience, he said.
"Doug Bruce did not do a good job of convincing me of anything tonight," Macoubrie said.
Gary Casimir, on the other hand, came to the meeting hoping to be convinced to vote for 2A by Suthers, but he's still on the fence.
"The city always has enough money to fight lawsuits, but never enough money to fix stuff," Casimir said.
Casimir did, however, acknowledge that the Colorado Springs' stormwater obligations must be met and said many of the city's problems can be blamed on Bruce, who wrote the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights and helped to kill a similar set of fees for the city that were enacted in 2005 but ended in 2009.
"If you like potholes, then thank Douglas Bruce," he said. "If you like stormwater running down your streets, thank Douglas Bruce."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the title of Laura Carno.