Mayor Rivera opposed to Issue 300

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Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera wants voters to be clear about something: He does not support Issue 300, the “strong mayor” proposal that would change the city’s government structure.

Rivera sent an e-mail and a clarification letter to the media today saying he wanted to reiterate his opposition to Issue 300 after a newspaper headline gave the opposite impression.

“I believe the headline they used was deceptive and attempted to give the impression I support the initiative. I do not,” he said.

Rivera’s opposition to the measure might come as a surprise to many because he was one of the first to float the strong-mayor proposal and even provided a white paper outline to strong-mayor campaign organizers.

He said organizers left out key provisions he suggested.

One of those provisions was that both the mayor and council vote on changes to Colorado Springs Utilities’ $31 million Payment in Lieu of Taxes, which represents 14 percent of the city’s general fund. budget. Issue 300 leaves the decision to Council and cuts out the mayor’s vote.

Other omitted provisions that cause Rivera to withhold his support include;

  • increase the number City Council district seats to 5 and reduce the number of at-large seats to 3
  • appointment the Memorial Health System Board of Trustees should be the responsibility of the mayor but subject to council approval.
  • Increase City Council stipends from $6,250 annually to a more appropriate compensation for overseeing a $2 billion in budgets.

Here’s the text of the mayor’s opposition letter:

Issue 300, “The Strong Mayor Proposal”, is a crucial issue the citizens of Colorado Springs will be asked to vote on this November. As such, I ask voters to carefully study the pros and cons of changing our form of government. The information provided by the proponents is biased and should be clarified. One message is that changing to a strong mayor will solve our budget shortfalls. Its true that a full time executive mayor would have more time to work with our economic development community to help support job growth, but our local economy and the revenues it generates to provide city services has been more impacted by the great recession, and by our community’s choice to be the lowest per capita taxed large city in the state. Under either form of government the Mayor and City Council will still have to make the hard choices of what programs to fund and which ones might be cut back.

Under a strong mayor form of government, City Council, not the Mayor will have final say over what gets funded, just as they do today. The budget will be proposed by the Mayor instead of the City Manager, and the Mayor will negotiate with City Council on funding priorities since they retain final approval authority. It will be an advantage for the executive mayor that once the budget is approved, the mayor will have the power to implement the budget under his or her interpretations of priorities and doesn’t have to check back with City Council.

The proponents of the measure claim that the strong mayor system shifts more power to citizens because the mayor is directly accountable to voters. It’s true that an elected chief executive mayor will have a more direct link to voters for the municipal operations of the City, but the new mayor looses power over Colorado Springs Utilities and Memorial Health System. The new mayor will have no vote on policies, major projects, pay and benefits, rate increases, or any other aspect of utility operations. That responsibility will rest solely with City Council. City Council will also retain oversight responsibility and budget approval authority of Memorial Health System. Under our current system, the Mayor shares those responsibilities with the eight other members of City Council.

The proponents claim that a strong mayor system will cost less money since the Mayor will be paid $96,000, and the former City Manager was paid $210,000. But under the new system, City Council will still be responsible for overseeing and approving over $2 billion in City, Utility and Hospital budgets with no finance or budget staff to assist them. They will also still be part time legislators and the staff they relied on for support will no longer work for them. When the City of San Diego changed to a strong mayor they created an office of The Independent Budget Analyst (IBA) that reports to City Council. Their IBA has a staff of 11 with a budget of $1,615,215. After the City of Tulsa changed to a strong mayor their City Council grew their staff to 13 including their own Chief of Staff, Attorney, Communications Director and aides. Issue 300 also authorizes a Chief of Staff for the mayor that does not exist today. The strong mayor form of government will likely cost us more.

If we accept these realities as the price to pay for a chief executive mayor then we can vote to change our form of government. Our City will have a mayor that can devote 100% of his or her time to being our Mayor. Having proudly served as your Mayor for the last 7 ½ years I know that the responsibilities of the office can be better served by a Mayor who does not have to split his or her time between a full time private sector job and a full time job representing and leading the City and leading the Board of Directors for Colorado Springs Utility. A full time, appropriately compensated mayor under our current council/manager system would also give us a mayor that can devote 100% of his or her time to serve the City and likely cost less than the proposed strong mayor system. Whatever system we choose our success will depend on electing the best leader for mayor and the best leaders for city council.

Lionel Rivera
Colorado Springs