2011 Forecast: A strong mayor, restrained by TABOR

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Thanks to their approval of the strong-mayor form of government in the November election, city residents will get what they voted for in 2011: change.

Voters will select a new mayor and a seven of nine council members.

The new mayor will have powers that his or her predecessors could only dream of, including preparing the budget, hiring and firing senior employees, and directing the city’s day-to-day operations.

City Council will lose much of its authority to the mayor. The mayor’s decisions can only be overridden by a 6-3 council vote, and he’ll no longer be a council member. Council will retain policy-making authority over the city’s enterprises, including Colorado Springs Utilities, Memorial Health System and the airport.

As the new mayor and council develop rules and procedures to implement the new form of government, business interests will have to adapt to a very different political environment, one essentially controlled by a single person.

Political maneuvering aside, the funding problems that have bedeviled local governments aren’t going away anytime soon.

Property values could fall by as much as 15 percent according to the latest assessment, reducing property tax revenues proportionately.

El Paso County would take a multimillion-dollar hit, as will local school districts.

And thanks to the inexorable effects of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, the city’s financial structure will continue its long-term decline. According to a November report from the Southern Colorado Economic Forum, increasing city sales tax revenues, while encouraging, may be “a little misleading in a TABOR environment.”

“After adjusting for inflation,” the report’s authors noted, “the city has 24.1 percent less money per resident to provide essential services comparable to the level of services provided in 1993 when TABOR took effect.”

In other areas, an expensive fix approved by the legislature last year was intended to restore the state’s public employee pension fund to financial health. Whether the fix will succeed is unknown, but the projected increase in payments by local governments to the defined-benefit fund will take millions from city and school district budgets.

House Majority Whip Amy Stephens, R-Colorado Springs, and Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, will be two of the most powerful legislators at the state capitol.

Not since Chuck Berry served as Speaker of the House 20 years ago has the local delegation had such clout.

Expect Stephens and Morse to put partisanship aside and cooperate on bills that affect the region.