In announcing his decision, Heimlicher cited personal reasons, and asked that council select his successor as soon as possible because major decisions involving the city’s 2010 budget were imminent.
Council launched an immediate search, which drew 19 applicants. Each submitted a resume, supporting documents and was briefly interviewed by the full council.
Most observers believed that council members would choose another business-friendly moderate to replace Heimlicher. But to the surprise of many, council chose former Gazette editorial page editor and outspoken libertarian Sean Paige to represent District 3.
Both as an editorialist, and as the founder of a policy-oriented nonprofit, Paige has advocated free enterprise, privatization wherever feasible and a slimmed-down local government.
In a platform which he posted on his blog, (locallibertyonline.org), Paige called for the city to consider “getting out of the energy, parking and hospital businesses.” He made other provocative suggestions as well, including “outsourcing road repair, snow removal, and park maintenance,” reducing the number of council members from nine to five, and having an elected city auditor.
Earlier this week, Paige took time from his now-tumultuous schedule to talk with CSBJ reporter (and former city councilman) John Hazlehurst.
Paige freely admits that he was “stunned” to have been selected, and also acknowledges that he has much to learn about the city, the city budget and the district that he now represents.
But after two decades spent on the periphery of the political process, Paige is clearly delighted to leave the audience and join the actors on stage. Whether he’ll have a leading role or a bit part remains to be seen — but it’s clear that he wants to have an impact.
CSBJ: In your application to council, you said that you thought council should move meetings to the evenings. After Monday’s marathon meeting, how do you feel?
Paige: I think we should give it a try. Maybe not routinely, but I think we ought to look at mixing in some evening meetings because one o’clock in the afternoon is not a convenient time for a lot of taxpayers.
It may be convenient for members of council, (but) not convenient for taxpayers. I’d like to experiment with having some evening meetings to see if they’re well attended.
We want participation, and having them at one o’clock on a Monday and Tuesday afternoon is not ideal in terms of getting participation.
The people who tend to come out are the interest groups that have an interest in what’s going on at the city (and) a few citizens, but I’d like to see if we can’t get more people to come out.
CSBJ: We tried that exact thing in the 1990s, and it didn’t work.
Paige: I think we ought to try it, and if it doesn’t work, we stop.
CSBJ: You say that you’re open to Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights modifications and improvements. What kind of TABOR modifications would you support?
Paige: That’s what’s yet to be discussed. I really believe in the core precepts of TABOR, but I’m not one of those who say it can’t be refined.
Earlier this year, in April, some people were pushing for a total repeal of TABOR. I led the effort to come up with a tailored alternative, which ended up as Referendum B — and passed.
So that shows that one, I can be constructive, and two, that I’m open to tailored modifications where a real problem is proven. I just think a lot of people exaggerate some of the problems. … We’re going to continue to have those discussions, and we’ll just have to see. I don’t want to prejudge. I’m open to listening to all kinds of ideas.
CSBJ: You’ve talked about opposing any historic preservation districts. Would that include the proposed West Side historic overlay plan?
Paige: It would depend. I don’t oppose historic preservation districts as such.
Where I have an issue is if they’re imposed on people against their will — when you have a majority of neighbors imposing restrictions on the property rights of a minority, I’m opposed to that. It should be voluntary. It should be non-coercive in my view. It should be an opt-out clause, including on the north side.
And I would hope as the West Side historic overlay goes forward, as I understand it, they’re trying to leave people an opt-out option. And that’s just, to me, that’s essential because I’m a believer in property rights. I just don’t like the coercive nature of some historic preservation items.
CSBJ: You oppose the use of eminent domain to advance economic development. If eminent domain was used by the Army to acquire tracts of land in Pinon Canyon, would you consider that economic development?
Paige: I consider that a national security issue. I think the expansion of a base certainly falls within the traditional rubric of what eminent domain is used for.
What I’m talking about is when a city takes a plot of land and gives it to a private company just because they can boost tax revenue. I’m totally opposed to that. That’s an abuse of eminent domain in my opinion.
CSBJ: Since the Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, no municipalities have taken similar steps, although Kelo would theoretically permit them to do so.
Paige: No. A lot of municipalities have, since the Kelo decision, gone hog-wild in this area. Now a lot of states have rolled out legislation to curb that, and there are ongoing efforts in states to do that.
But that’s something I just don’t think would be tolerated in Colorado Springs. I don’t think it’s really going to come up here necessarily, just because I think locals have a strong property rights ethos, and not too many smart politicians would go against that.
CSBJ: What about the city budget? Have you had time to look at it; have you had time to analyze it? Any thoughts?
Paige: I have had time to look at it. My thoughts are when you look at the big picture, when you look at $30 million, it’s pretty daunting.
I think when you actually start parsing the pie and looking at what those proposed cuts are, I think some of them, if we have to make the cuts, they’re doable and the city will not implode because of that.
I’m meeting with the city manager today (Tuesday); we’re going to go over it. I think some of her cuts make sense. If we have to make cuts I think there are ones in there that make sense that I can support. But it’s painful.
CSBJ: Is the Pioneers Museum among those cuts that make sense, and that you’d support?
Paige: Until I get into negotiations, I’m not going to go into that. But here’s where maybe my approach would be different.
I don’t think it’s an either-or. Maybe we can find a third way with the Pioneers Museum. Maybe if we have to temporarily, it doesn’t have to be city funded, maybe we can find a nonprofit to run it. Maybe it could set itself up as a nonprofit foundation to run itself.
There’s always a third way. I don’t want to be a reflexive naysayer, what I want to be is somebody who comes forward with alternative approaches.
So, I don’t know. I don’t want to prejudge on the Pioneers. This is going to have to be hashed out later this week and there’s going to be give and take and tradeoffs and all that stuff.
I don’t want to get on the record of what position I’m ultimately going to take on that. We’re always going to look to mitigate the pain of any cuts that happen, and maybe, that’s where maybe a little creativity can come into the picture, hopefully.
CSBJ: One of the things you advocate is to get out of the energy business. That we would presume would mean selling the power plants. If you sell the power plants to Xcel, then Xcel would be entitled to a certain rate of return. That would mean higher utility rates. How would that differ from a tax increase, or a large bond issue, since it would be paid for by the ratepayers in Colorado Springs and it would be at a higher interest rate?
Paige: I think we have to look at it. I’m not coming out of the box advocating that we go out and sell the energy part of utilities.
What I am saying is we need to think about everything within the city, we need to put everything on the table. Would there be tradeoffs? Perhaps. I don’t know. … Putting into private hands doesn’t automatically allow utilities to run wild — it’s controlled by the PUC.
CSBJ: The PUC, by law, has to allow a certain rate of return on capital investment. The excess over the debt would be capital investment.
Paige: That’s OK. That’s what private enterprise is all about. I just don’t buy the argument automatically that putting any of the enterprises into private hands means they’ll go away or it will be doom and gloom for the city.
I think that’s what needs to be studied. There might be tradeoffs. Maybe we will have some adjustments in our utility rates, but maybe we could use the proceeds from the sale of the energy section to pay off our debt and pay off what we’re going to owe on the Southern Delivery System.
There are tradeoffs in all these things, and all I’m advocating for is serious study of it, and serious openness to it.
There’s a lot of uncertainty in the utility environment right now. We could have cap and trade coming down the line. In the case of the hospital, we could have Obama-care materializing over time.
I think this is the time, more than ever, to have this discussion because the utilities business is going to get much more tenuous and much more complicated as time goes on, as will the hospital business — depending on what Obama does.
So, I think now is the time to have a serious discussion about whether we want to pass those responsibilities off to a private-sector player or whether we want to try to keep them in the city domain.
CSBJ: If handing them over to a private-sector player would cause severe and permanent increases in utility rates, would you then still support it?
Paige: First of all, I don’t buy the premise — that’s what needs to be studied.
CSBJ: You also said snow removal ought to be privatized.
Paige: I think it ought to be looked at.
CSBJ: Denver International Airport is now de-privatizing snow removal because they believe that by using Denver municipal workers, they’ll save about $500,000 annually.
Paige: It all depends on how you crunch the numbers. A lot of people in the city will say, “Well, we can do it cheaper in house.” But are the costs associated with that — do you think about the pension obligations of city employees having these jobs done — you have to factor in all of the costs.
I think we should try to competitively bid snow removal, park maintenance, road repair — and at least do some demonstration projects.
I would challenge the city to do some demonstration projects. There are a number of contractors in town who are standing at the ready to do this work. Why don’t we say, “Hey, you take this square mile of the city, we’ll take this square mile, and let’s compete for a season and see who does it better.”
You mentioned DIA. A couple years ago, my wife and I were going on a trip, it was a hellacious winter day, driving up to DIA. All the way up on I-25, the roads were hellacious.
We got off the exit on the toll road and it was smooth sailing. We could cruse along at 65 mph all the way to DIA. One is privately owned, one is publicly owned. There’s always debate about who does it better, but I’d like to at least study the issue.
CSBJ: Let’s move on to even more specific West Side issues. The city subsidizes the circulation of the Organization of Westside Neighbors newsletter to the extent of about $8,000 a year. Would that be a target for cost reduction?
Paige: First of all, that’s the first I’ve heard of it, so I wasn’t aware of that situation. I don’t know. Everything has to be on the table. $8,000 in the big picture is very small potatoes. But, again, we’re going to have to look at everything.
I don’t know how that situation came about, but I do plan on meeting with West Side people, and some of those meetings are already in the works. We’ll just have to see.
CSBJ: You’ve said that you wouldn’t support the formation of committees such as the Sustainable Funding Committee unless City Council was actually going to do something about the recommendations. Isn’t it good to have input from commissions, paid or unpaid?
Paige: I agree with you, but sometimes it’s a buck-passing exercise. I don’t think that’s the case with the Sustainable Funding Committee or the Charter Review Committee. But it does tend to be a buck-passing.
People who worked on the Sustainable Funding Committee worked very, very hard — I know some of them. I think there’s also an interest on the part of my colleagues on council to pick up some of these ideas and run with them.
Do I agree with all of the Sustainable Funding Committee’s recommendations? No. Do I agree with a lot of them? Do I think they need serious study? Of course. People put a lot of time and effort into that.
There’s a time and a place to create blue-ribbon commissions, but the buck stops with us, and I’m not going to be using the creation of commissions to dodge the hard choices.
CSBJ: Speaking of hard choices, over the next couple of years, you’ll have the opportunity to approve or disapprove the acquisition of Section 16, using a combination of Trails, Open Space and Parks and Greater Outdoor Colorado funds. What’s your position on that?
Paige: I editorialized skeptically on the extension of TOPs, not because I’m against parks or open spaces, I just wondered if it was a city priority at a time when budgets were already getting tight and we already do have a lot of parkland that we can’t seem to maintain.
Right now we have a situation where we have a lot of units and we can’t even water the grass. So, I think there’s a legitimate question about how reflectively we would expand the parks domain when you can’t even maintain what you have.
That said, TOPs has been approved, it’s overwhelmingly popular and I think they should be able to acquire the properties that they find valuable.
CSBJ: You’ve suggested also that there ought to be some sort of give-back to the city from the enterprises — some sort of municipal dividend. Could that dividend, in the case of utilities, not take the form or reduced water rates to enable the parks to be watered?
Paige: It might be. That’s a very creative idea.
If one of the city enterprises is making a profit, I know they’re nonprofits, but if they’re clearing a certain amount, I think there might be an argument to be made to put some of that back into the general fund, especially in tight times like this.
They seem to be doing a great job out at Memorial of reducing their costs, and they’re starting to run in the black, which is good to see. But if they cleared $16 million a year, I’m open to the discussion about whether some of that — maybe leave them with their profit, incentivize them to stay in the black, incentivize them to make a profit — but why not redirect some of those funds back into the city coffers and use it maybe for parks.
There are all kinds of needs. It’s one of these things I’d like to talk about, have a serious discussion about.
CSBJ: One of the things that the city has apparently not adopted is the kind of large-scale furloughs that have been adopted both the county and the state. Any thoughts on whether that’s appropriate?
Paige: I think that’s open to discussion, too. I think we need to look at furloughs as an option. I’m not sure why we haven’t done that at the city, but that’s one of the things I’ll be taking up with the city manager today. I think furloughs are a reasonable way to go.
Some companies are using them; they’re using them over at my old employer, The Gazette. Anything that the private sector uses, I think the government sector look at, too.
CSBJ: You’ve expressed opposition to city funding and utilities funding of the Economic Development Corp. Does that also extend to the convention and visitors bureau?
Paige: I’m not opposed to the EDC, I’m very supportive of what they do. But over time, I’ve developed some concerns about EDC.
One, the public funding of EDC since they take an advocacy position. I’m not sure that public funds should go to organizations that take advocacy positions on ballot measures that affect city revenue. It’s a tight little circle there that I’m not comfortable with.
I fully support EDC. I like Mike Kazmierski. I think they do a very important job. But EDC was originally self-supporting, and I think we need to look at, especially at a time of tight budgets.
CSBJ: What about the CVB?
Paige: I think that’s a little bit of a different story. I think we maybe need to talk in a tight budget time whether some of those funds should be going there.
We’re a tourism-based economy. I’m not saying it’s not important, but again, it’s all a question of tradeoffs and what are priorities in this really tight budget twime.
In a super-tight budget time, when we’re cutting police and firemen, might some of those funds for higher priority items? I’m open to that discussion.
CSBJ: The U.S. Olympic Committee deal. You have long opposed it …
Paige: Well, no, let’s just be clear. I didn’t oppose it.
I value the presence of the USOC in town. I’ve oftentimes voiced that I don’t want them to leave. What I was uncomfortable with was the fact that I don’t think the city got the best deal they could have gotten. I don’t think they drove a hard enough bargain.
I would have liked the USOC to chip in more toward the construction of the headquarters. I really want to make sure this is a true partnership, because we’re putting out a lot of coin for this and if all we get is the use of the rings logo on city letterhead, I’m not sure that’s conducive to a true partnership.
I didn’t like the process. The process was a little better in the second USOC deal, but I was completely opposed to the process — it was negotiated in secret, rolled out on a Friday and approved on a Monday afternoon. I don’t think that’s adequate public process for a decision this large and this significant.
So, I’m not against the USOC, or the deal. I have some real problems — I think the city was a little too compliant in how they negotiated the terms of the deal.
CSBJ: Your name is going to be on the final offering statement of the certificates of participation that will fund the deal. Does that bother you at all?
Paige: No. I’m an officer of the city now, and I’m not going to raise a stink about things like that.
I’m happy that the city can retain the USOC. I wish they could have driven a little harder bargain, and gotten the USOC to pay more of its way on what it’s gaining.
CSBJ: You’ve proposed selling Memorial Health System to free up cash to enable the city to buy Banning Lewis Ranch as a recreational amenity and eastern buffer. It’s an interesting idea, but is Banning for sale?
Paige: It’s one of those ideas I threw into my platform. Some of them were more doable and reasonable than others.
I just wanted to throw all kinds of ideas in there. That’s what I hope to bring, an ability to throw some ideas out there. The owners of Banning Lewis are not doing well financially. I just think the time might be right.
Again, it’s a question of tradeoffs. There might be an argument for acquiring that property if we could do it for a reasonable amount of money — and turn it into a recreational amenity.
But that’s just a gamble, and one of those ideas I threw out there.