Tax increase is essential in infrastructure upkeep

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Colorado Springs’ infrastructure could deteriorate if the city’s residents don’t pass Issue A, commonly known as SCIP 01.

A citizens’ panel and a technical panel composed of chairs of Springs Community Improvement Program committees presented that message last week to an audience of business leaders at The Broadmoor hotel.

“Business people understand why we need to put money into the infrastructure,” said John Henry, a spokesman for USAA Insurance. Henry, who is part of the operations and maintenance elements committee for SCIP, sat on the citizens’ panel. “We need your support,” he told the business leaders.

The support would be to vote yes on Issue A, and get the word out in the community about the benefits of SCIP. Issue A would establish a 0.9-percent increase in the city sales-and-use tax. The tax would not apply to groceries, prescription medicines or residential gas and electric utility bills.

City Manager Jim Mullen said most of the business community supports Issue A; it’s the rest of the population that’s not quite convinced.

“Citizens have written letters that question the need (for the tax increase),” said Mullen. “They suggest that this is a very large increase in taxes and say we need to look at existing resources instead of asking for additional money.”

Mullen’s response to those concerns is backed with facts.

“We already spend 86 percent of our budget on the four departments that are the recipients of projects in SCIP: parks and recreation, public works, fire and police, which are all high-priority departments,” he said. “That leaves 14 percent for all the other city operations, and those departments are uniformly understaffed right now and they can’t be reduced any further with out affecting the efficiency of the city.”

The other departments sharing the remaining 14 percent are budget, finance, planning, facilities management, and information technology. Mullen’s budget, which is less than 1 percent of the city budget, is also included in that.

Mullen said city staff and council have been reviewing expenditures for the last eight years.

“Council has not found anything they’ve been able to cut,” he said. “We’re at the point where we have to cut police and fire services, or we have to get more revenue.”

Colorado Springs has the lowest sales tax on the Front Range at 2 cents, which “isn’t efficient to support 365,000 people in the city. It is a major increase based upon what we have today,” Mullen said. “Even after the increase we will still be lower than Denver, Aurora and other major cities in Colorado.”

Mullen said the tax is needed to fund essential services. The police call response time has gone from nine minutes in 1997 to 12.5 minutes today. And for some locations in the city, the fire department doesn’t arrive until 20 minutes after the call has been placed. The tax is also needed to lift the city’s hiring freezes.

“Since 1980 we haven’t added staff to our street division in public works, who do snow removal and other projects,” said Mullen. “And Colorado Springs has more acres of parkland than almost any other city in the United States to maintain, but we haven’t had an increase in staffing in parks operations to keep up with the growth.

“So my answer is, citizens who are willing to see poor road maintenance, and police officers who can’t show up to your house in 15 minutes and medical responses of 10 to 15 minutes in some part of the city – well then, you probably don’t favor having a tax increase.”

Opposition to SCIP has also come from some City Council candidates, he said. And while he did not want to get involved in the politics of it, Mullen said some candidates think citizens should vote on SCIP projects individually, instead of passing a tax to support a slate of numerous projects.

Citizens on the SCIP committees reviewed more than $1 billion in capital project requests, of which they identified $350 million high-priority projects for the city; voters are being asked to spend only about $257 million to fund 107 projects.

If Issue A passes, some of the money will go toward funding 100 additional police officers; two new fire stations; improving traffic signals; intersection and roadway safety improvements and traffic-reduction projects; express bus service pilot programs; 8,800 new streetlights; 30 additional street-maintenance workers; and 46 miles of road resurfacing.

If voters don’t pass Issue A, any backup plans would have to be approved by City Council. However, council’s options would be limited, said Mike Anderson, budget manager for Colorado Springs.

One option would be to forgo the projects that would be aided by SCIP, such as additions for fire and police.

The SCIP committee panel displayed data showing outcomes if SCIP isn’t passed. For example, response times for emergency and non-emergency calls would increase by six or more minutes from current response times. The current goal for response times is eight minutes for emergency calls. The actual average is 11.5 minutes. That time could swell to as much as 18 minutes by 2010 if there is no change. If SCIP passes, it would allow the city to hire more officers and other staff, and upgrade technology and additional investigative services, resulting in an average estimated response time of 9 minutes and 14 seconds.

The committee also pointed out other shortcomings in service that would occur by 2010 if SCIP 01 is not approved. Approximately 1,207 miles of road will not be resurfaced; and snow removal, which now starts around 2 a.m. and finishes at 7 a.m., would not be completed until 10 a.m.

Henry said the delay in snow removal affects the ability of businesses to stay open, and impedes employees who are trying to get to work, as well as parents who have to get their children to school before they head off to work.

The second option council has is to incorporate the high-priority needs of the city into the budget, Anderson said. The lesser projects would either be eliminated or held off.

“It isn’t a palatable option because most of the services we provide are high priority, but there isn’t a magical answer to finding an alternative source of funding these projects.”

City councilmen Ted Eastburn and Richard Skorman agree with that assessment.

“We’ll have to look at our budget and seriously cut back on city projects,” said Skorman. “And the criteria for not cutting a project would be based upon what’s essential, and council may have to raise fees for city services to help pay for projects.”

Eastburn said federal grants for supporting city services, like police, get phased out over the years and, as a result, the city has to pick up the tab when the grant dies out. If Issue A is not passed there will be delays or eliminations in intersection improvements, technology improvements for street lights, and drainage projects throughout old parts of town, said Eastburn.

The final option for council would be bringing a modified version of SCIP to the voters in the future, said Anderson.

Eastburn said Issue A is a serious issue.

“If it fails, I think we’d be right back at the next election, because this is not a ‘gee whiz, wouldn’t-this-be-nice’ wish list. It’s essential services that we are trying to take care of,” he said.

Mullen doubts that Issue A will be passed easily.

“I don’t think it’s by any means something we’ll pass without any trouble,” he said.