Seven candidates vying to replace Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers in the April 4 municipal election shared their visions for the city at a mayoral debate Thursday night.
Hosted by the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, candidates Sallie Clark, Andrew Dalby, Darryl Glenn, Longinos Gonzalez Jr., Yemi Mobolade, Tom Strand and Wayne Williams addressed hot topics including public safety, growth and development, and the city's economic vitality in the face of a recession, among others, to dozens of residents and community leaders at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Colorado Springs.
While there are 12 candidates in the mayor's race, the chamber invited candidates who had filed campaign finance reports with the city by Jan. 3, said its vice president of government affairs, Dave Dazlich.
Candidates touted their political and professional experience, many of them military veterans, business owners and experienced politicians. Many agreed that addressing public safety, including rising crime and retaining first responders, was the top issue the next administration must tackle. Creating and maintaining a safe community will help draw more residents and businesses who want to live and stay here, they said.
"We need to get our swagger back. It’s a privilege to live in Colorado Springs, ladies and gentlemen. I think the biggest draw is if we become the safest city in the nation," Glenn said. "... So when we fix that problem and when we fix our infrastructure, that’s going to be the biggest draw to economic vitality here."
In the past four years, the city has added 63 new police officers, 66 new firefighters and three new fire stations, Williams said. But though the City Council in December approved a $1 billion budget that added funding for 15 police officer positions, the city is still short about 50 to 60 officers.
"This is a staffing issue," Clark said, adding that the city cannot maintain staffing levels because more officers are retiring or leaving law enforcement faster than they can be replaced. "We will never catch up if we don't solve the issue of the fact that we need to recruit and keep good people on the force."
Several candidates stressed the need for better recruit sourcing. The large number of military veterans in the community could help fill some of those vacanices, Dalby said. Glenn suggested the city look for first responder recruits at churches and schools.
Mobolade said officials need to recruit more women and minorities, and should also consider holding year-round police academies, among other options. Strand said he would partner with local schools and universities to implement a regional two-year police college to train new possible recruits.
Gonzalez added the city must quicken its emergency response times and the next mayor needs to advocate for better public safety at the state level.
"You need a leader who can advocate to fight against all bad bills being pushed by activists and leftists at the state. ... We need to enforce our laws ... so we can be a stronger and better community," he said.
The city must also take care of its active-duty military population and their families, candidates said. The five military installations in Colorado Springs and their missions account for 40% of local economic activity, debate moderators said.
An impending decision has also not yet been made about whether Space Command headquarters will remain in Colorado Springs or will move permanently to Huntsville, Ala.
As a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Glenn said he would ensure Colorado Springs is known for providing "important services to our families," including addressing crime so that when active duty military are away from home they know their families are safe.
Gonzalez, also a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, highlighted his experience working as the Department of Defense's intelligence chief at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, and a military operation there, where he helped rescue three Americans who were held by insurgents.
"That's the kind of story that's going to help close business deals for our community, for our contractors, and make sure we can ... help our veteran communities to be the best they can be, and help our entire community," Gonzalez said.
Mobolade said officials must work with economic development partners to support local defense companies, ensure the city is retaining its workforce so retiring military personnel can stay local, and "facilitate a welcoming environment for our military families."
Strand, who after 30 years also retired from the Air Force, said he would use his skills and military background to work with the Department of Defense to "maximize expansion" of the military-based companies already in town.
"We're all hoping to get Space Command headquarters here and I think we're all holding our breath on that," he said.
When it comes to the local economy, Mobolade said the city should revisit and update its current business development incentives, then make sure businesses are taking advantage of rebates and other incentives.
Strand highlighted the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority as one resource to encourage local business opportunities. The authority restores and redevelops blighted areas through a type of financing that allows an increased portion of sales and property tax revenues generated from various taxing entities, like the city, to be spent on public improvements at designated sites.
Clark, the longtime owner of the Holden House 1902 Bed & Breakfast Inn, said small businesses are struggling across the country. She proposed a small business roundtable that could work with the mayor to determine what business policies and practices are working and which are not.
Colorado Springs, too, is growing rapidly and many residents say they are concerned with the pace of growth and whether or not the city has enough resources to sustain it, Mobolade and Glenn said. The city is short about 12,000 housing units.
Williams said as a member of the City Council he helped establish a program so that affordable and attainable housing projects no longer pay the city sales tax. As mayor, Williams said he would encourage other local governments to implement the same kind of program.
When the city established a water resource fee to acquire more water resources, Colorado Springs Utilities established a $2 million fund to cover water tap fees for affordable and attainable housing projects, he said. The City Council also acts as the Springs Utilities board, and Williams is its chair.
Dalby, who owns an RV storage business, said the government's role in development should be minimal.
"Get the City Council and the (El Paso Board of County Commissioners) out of the minutia of development and let people who know business provide housing for our residents at a reasonable cost," he said.
Glenn said the government does not need to create affordable housing. "It's a market decision," he said. Glenn said he would "maximize private property rights" and would push for the city to stop taking funding from the state and federal governments for development efforts, as they can impose certain regulations on how it can be spent.
As the Colorado River endures an ongoing megadrought, the City Council recently passed a controversial water rule requiring Colorado Springs Utilities to have 128% of the water needed to serve existing city demand and the projected demand from new properties.
Glenn and Williams said they supported the rule as the city needs to prepare and plan for the possibility of low water availability. Glenn also said the rule would ensure the city has enough water to respond to emergencies, like wildfires.
Clark said the rule was "ill-conceived, fast-tracked and a knee-jerk reaction" to growth. Gonzalez said it was impossible to know if a 128% buffer was the right number because regional water needs weren't studied more holistically.
Strand said Councilwoman Nancy Henjum was leading a regional group to study the requirement more closely.