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The city of Colorado Springs is budgeting for an additional $56 million next year bringing its total general fund budget up to $400 million. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

The city of Colorado Springs is expecting a sizable bump of $56 million to its general fund budget next year, an increase that could boost wildfire mitigation, pay for city employees, spending on police and public safety, and new crisis response teams, among other priorities. 

The total general fund budget is expected to collect about $400.6 million in 2022 or about 16.26% more next year than this year. The general fund pays for many basic government services, such as police and fire protection and does not have the same spending restrictions as dedicated fees or taxes. For example, the city has a dedicated stormwater fee and trails open space and parks tax.

The healthy budget is a reflection of the local economy's resilience, including its strong construction market, said Mayor John Suthers. It also reflects $10.8 million held over from the federal coronavirus relief payments.

"The bottom line is Colorado Springs weathered the pandemic and is continuing to weather the pandemic as well as any large city in America, I can't imagine anybody doing a better job," he said. 

The revenue growth exceeds a growth cap put in place by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, and so the city will ask voters in November to retain up to $20 million to fund a new wildfire mitigation fund. The money could be invested and drawn down a few hundred thousand at a time to allow city crews to mitigate wildfire inside and outside city limits. 

If the question passes, it would also allow the city to retain an additional $16.5 million expected to be collected in 2022 that could fund public safety investments like new fire and police stations, Chief Financial Office Charae McDaniel said. The Colorado Springs Fire Department is expected to need four more fire stations in the coming years, Fire Chief Randy Royal said previously

The city is also budgeting $424,000 to introduce a new model of crisis response to help those who would normally interact with a police officer but aren't posing a threat to others. Instead of sending a police officer, a behavioral health clinical navigator, similar to a social worker, and a paramedic would be sent to assist, said Lt. Andrew Cooper, with the community and public health division of the fire department.

For example, if someone appeared to be talking to themselves on a street corner and passing residents' called 911, the new team of two could respond and help the individual get the proper mental health care, he said. The team could assist without involving the police at all, Cooper said. 

"The idea here is to fix these problems," he said. 

The city's current crisis response teams include an officer, an emergency medical professional and a licensed mental health specialist. Those teams will stay in place. 

The fire department expects to have two teams under the new model, one that would respond to calls coming in and another that would work with people on an ongoing basis, to help them find the right behavioral health care, Cooper said. 

The city's Law Enforcement Transparency and Accountability Commission Chairwoman Janice "JJ" Frazier said she was pleased with the inclusion of the teams in the proposed budget because they are in line with the commission's first recommendation to expand the city's crisis response.

"I think they could make a huge difference especially for the lower acuity calls, people who are repeat callers," Frazier said.

The absence of uniformed officers could also help situations from escalating, she said.

The police department could also see a boost from the funds to increase the overall number of positions and salaries. The city expects to fund 17 new police positions to fulfill Suthers' commitment of funding 803 new positions by 2022.

The city only employs about 703 officers right now and expects several large classes in 2022 of recruits to help fill new and open positions. Data provided by police show a class of 84 recruits is in training and two additional classes of 72 students are planned. The department doesn't expect all of those recruits to graduate or obtain employment. 

The city is combatting higher attrition among more senior officers who qualify for their pensions and are retiring a bit early, Suthers said. However, the city is seeing well-qualified applicants, an uptick in women applying and good racial diversity. 

"We don't need fewer police officers. We need more police officers. There's been a significant uptick in crime over the last couple of years," he said. 

In 2020, Colorado Springs saw 36 homicides, the highest number since at least 1985, the Gazette reported

Police and fire department employees will see raises as well next year. The city expects to set aside $9 million to fund cost of living and merit pay increases. 

Outside of public safety, the city expects to spend $14.4 million next year to fund new positions and raises the city phased in during June. The new positions included six new planners, five new lawyers, five new public works employees, three stormwater workers and 11 new Colorado Springs Airport employees, the city said previously. 

Raises are needed to stay competitive in a hot labor market, where skilled employees such as engineers and information technology professionals are in high demand, Suthers said.

"Keeping our stormwater engineers and civil engineers is a challenge," he said.  

Some of the other budget highlights include:

• $5.4 million to reinstate spending from COVID-19 prompted cuts

• $2.2 million for facility maintenance - including work on police and fire headquarters, parks facilities, public works facilities, fuel island infrastructure, and the municipal courthouse

• $700,000 increased funding for animal law enforcement services

• $1.7 million of increased funding for city fleet and equipment replacement

• $500,000 of continued funding to support shelter bed operations for the homeless population

• $934,000 additional funding to Mountain Metro Transit for increased contract and other operating costs to sustain transit services

The Colorado Springs City Council will review and approve the budget in the coming months. 

Gazette reporter Evan Ochsner contributed to this report. 

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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