Voters elected Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers this month to a second term. The Gazette asked Suthers several questions by email about his first term, unfinished business, current priorities and how he’d like to be remembered.
Here are those questions and the mayor’s written responses, edited for brevity:
This has been the eighth time in 30 years you’ve been sworn into public office. Will this be the last, or could there be another run after mayor? Is it possible you’d run to replace U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn?
It is unlikely I will run for elected office again.
Voters this month also overwhelmingly rejected Issue 1, which would have granted city firefighters collective bargaining privileges. How much of an impact do you believe your opposition had with voters?
Through polling, we learned that voters were more likely to oppose Issue One if they: Knew the average salary of a firefighter, knew the cost of a special election that could be sparked by collective bargaining; knew that other City departments could seek to unionize and knew that the mayor was opposed. We were able to send those messages effectively and I think that made a difference.
What, if anything, was left incomplete or unfinished from your first term?
The EPA lawsuit remains unresolved. I remain optimistic that we will be able to resolve it this year.
There is still over a year remaining in Ballot 2C. I’m extremely proud of the progress we’ve made so far ... Through the collaborative efforts of our public works department and Colorado Springs Utilities, we expect to begin addressing residential streets as early as 2020. I’ve asked Council to consider putting a renewal of 2C on the ballot in November. We expect it would renew at a lower rate and it would definitely allow us to make a significant impact on our residential streets as well as arterials.
While we’ve made significant progress, we are still working on City for Champions becoming a reality. As we await final construction of the Hybl Sports Medicine Center at UCCS, the grand opening of the nation’s only U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame, and groundbreakings of the new Air Force Academy Visitors’ Center, Switchbacks Stadium at Weidner Field and Robson Arena at Colorado College, our city stands to add an additional 1.2M visitors annually, to gain $4.4M in city tax revenue and to attract multiple cultural, sport and entertainment events. These exciting developments were just the start of years of progress and exciting additions that will continue to lift Colorado Springs as a best-in-class city.
We need to continue growing our airport. More than 1.7M passengers traveled through the Colorado Springs Airport in 2018, marking the highest passenger count in nearly a decade and an increase of 47% since 2015. Bolstered by the return of Frontier Airlines as well as new routes by American and Delta, the Colorado Springs Airport experienced and sustained significant growth. We want to continue that trend and of course continue to encourage our residents to fly Colorado Springs whenever possible.
What issues likely could extend beyond your second term, and is there anything specific the city can do to address them now?
Affordable housing and homelessness are two issues which simply do not have a quick solution. We are committed to working to mitigate the negative effects of homelessness and to increase our supply of affordable housing, but these are issues that will continue to challenge our city — and cities nationwide — for years to come. ... homelessness itself (has) several complicating factors (mental health overlays, drug and alcohol abuse, etc.) that require many different approaches.
While I’m pleased to see progress in fixing the gap on I-25, our State will be wrestling with transportation and infrastructure funding for years to come. I plan to call on the State and CDOT to address some of the state roads here in our city that need to expand to accommodate the growth of the city.
Is the addition of 120 police officers over the next five years still a realistic goal? If so, how will that come to fruition each year?
Absolutely. Starting this summer, we will increase the size of our Academy classes to ensure we can train enough quality officers to meet our growing needs. We will do this within POST standards, which limit the number of cadets in each training session by adding instructors and sessions. It’s important to note that both the Chief and I are in absolute agreement that while we expect to meet this goal, we will not do it by sacrificing quality of applicants or proper training for any new officers.”
What actionable steps can be taken to shorten the response times of the city’s police and fire departments and ambulance service?
With our police response, the primary answer is more officers on the street. Our fire department does very well on response times, but where we can improve on both fronts is in the 9-1-1 call center. We are bringing in an external consultant to review our operations and see if there are efficiencies including but not limited to staffing additions, that will help us lower answer times.
Currently our Ambulance service is contracted out to AMR. We recently released a new RFP (request for proposals) soliciting bids from ambulance contractors, which includes response time requirements. To that end, the Fire Department is also studying the possibility of an in-source option. ... the evaluation of all options and bidders will take place during this process.
You’ve spoken of more aggressive policing to address homelessness now that more shelter beds are available. What else can be done to help those living on the streets?
We are very fortunate in this city to have a large number of qualified and dedicated service providers who are able to meet people where they are and who have the necessary expertise to help mitigate the underlying issues that contribute to homelessness. We will continue to work collaboratively with these organizations. We are also moving through the Homelessness Action Plan and laying groundwork for some of the goals including increased street outreach and potentially a homeless work program. We have already added two officers to CSPD’s Homeless Outreach Team, added a second illegal camp cleanup crew and helped fund construction to (add beds to) the Springs Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army’s RJ Montgomery Shelter.
While we work to point people in need to the providers in the area, we also have a responsibility to enforce no camping bans and to protect our environment from the negative impacts of illegal camping.
When can voters expect a ballot question seeking the renewal of 2C? Can voters expect any additional new taxes or fees to appear on the ballot in the coming years?
I’ve asked City Council to discuss a potential renewal of Ballot 2C at the upcoming Mayor-Council retreat with an eye on placing it on the November 2019 ballot. The good news is that because of the efficiency we’ve accomplished in our 2C operations to date and because of our strong economy, we expect that a renewal would be proposed at a lower percentage than the existing .62.
Other issues that could come up on the ballot in the coming years would be a renewal of the TOPs (Trails, Open Spaces and Parks) tax, which has been in place since 1997 and generates $6M annually for our parks system. There is also a push to increase our Lodgers and Rental Car Tax (LART), which is paid almost entirely by tourists and is extremely low compared to other cities. Our lodgers’ tax is 2% and our rental car tax is 1%. By comparison, Nashville’s lodger tax is 5% and rental car tax is over 13%. In Denver, the lodgers’ tax is 10.75% and the rental car tax is 7.25%. I think when people realize that this is a tax on tourists and not on local residents, it could gain a lot of support.
You often speak of your legacy and desire to help build a city that matches its scenery. How else would you like to be remembered?
I don’t use the word legacy. Other people define your legacy. I talk about the need to become a good ancestor. I want to put things in place in this final term that will continue to positively impact my hometown long after my lifetime. I’ve worked hard to address some of Colorado Springs’ long-standing issues including infrastructure and job growth, and that has helped us become a best-in-class city and among the best places in America to live.
What other priorities have you set for your second term?
1. Expanding our Focus on Transportation: ... We have already repaved over 700 miles of roadway under 2C, but in a city our size, great work remains to be done. An extension of Ballot 2C would see us fix all our key arterials and also get into some well-traveled and deteriorating residential roadways.
... I’m committed to lobbying the state to fund state roadways — (Hwy 94, 8, 24 and 21) to provide much needed repairs. We will also begin a full-scale transportation study that will look beyond roads and infrastructure and look to improve our offerings in public transportation.
2. Addressing Affordable Housing; and Homelessness: Our Community Development division funnels over $4M in state and federal aid to deserving service providers and projects around our city. While the City of Colorado Springs is not a housing or shelter provider, it does play a vital role in helping these organizations serve the populations in need. Through tax incentives and other assistance, our community development division is tasked with creating 1,000 new affordable housing units each year. ... our city looks forward to progress in this important area.
3. Bringing the SE Along: As our city enjoys record growth in its Northeastern quadrant as well as downtown, we are aware of the need to stimulate growth in the southeast section of town. While private business is primarily responsible for economic development, the city has the ability to incentivize and facilitate this growth as it positively impacts the area. In the years to come, the city is looking at multi-million dollar investments in the southeast. From grant funding that will entirely reimagine Panorama Park to a $45M investment in South Academy Blvd. reconstruction, the City will do its part to improve the area. The City has and will use tools in the Urban Renewal Authority to attract new and catalytic businesses and employers to the area, and though we can’t say too much, we are already seeing positive gains from private companies.