Budget provides path for Council to battle Bach

The battles have become a war. A divided City Council moved to escalate the Council vs. Mayor Steve Bach differences at Tuesday’s “budget markup” session.

In keeping with Council’s recently installed committee structure, Councilor Don Knight, who heads the budget committee, presented proposed changes to Mayor Bach’s preliminary budget.

Some seemed petty, such as the suggestion that the payment of Council’s $6,250 stipend be “apportioned” between the city, Memorial Hospital and Colorado Springs Utilities. After wondering out loud whether the entire Council budget, which amounts to several hundred thousand annually, ought to be re-apportioned, Councilors voted to leave well enough alone.

Other ideas seemed bizarre. Council debated whether to spend $350,000 in Conservation Trust Funds (derived from the state lottery) to convert the tennis courts in Monument Valley Park to pickle ball courts. Doing so, according to the Friends of Pickle Ball, would enable the city to secure a 2015 regional competition. During discussion of the issue it was clear that few councilors knew anything about the sport, despite the presence of a half-dozen eager pickleballers in the audience.

Council passed on the funding.

The much-criticized “virtual stormwater department,” proposed earlier by Council, was hastily dropped. Instead, Council accepted assurances from city CFO Kara Skinner that the $2 million at issue would be used for stormwater projects, and that stormwater accounts would be transparent and available.

But the era of good feelings quickly ended.

In response to Bach’s demand that Utilities create a special rate that would reduce the anticipated 2014 park watering costs by $1.2 million, Council did just the opposite. The legislators declined to extend an existing temporary conservation rate, which would have covered half of the amount. Despite Mayor Bach’s assertion that Council had “promised” to create a new rate class, the group funded the shortfall by taking $600,000 from the police budget and an equal amount from the city’s fund balance.

“We need to move to sustainable funding from the general fund for park watering,” said Councilor Jill Gaebler.

By a 5-4 vote, Council nixed the Fire Department’s community health program, which involved refurbishing the closed Fire Station 8 as a community health center. The $400,000 program, a partnership between the city and various health care providers, is intended to reduce both non-fire emergency calls to CSFD and emergency room visits for minor health issues.

Council also eliminated funding for a deputy director in the Office of Emergency Management, calling the thinly staffed organization “top heavy.”

Council’s proposed changes in the budget will certainly irritate Mayor Bach, who may veto every one of them. Their actions are consonant with their responsibility as the city’s legislative branch, but they’d like to wrest much more power from the executive.

Council’s proposed changes in the budget will certainly irritate Mayor Bach, who may veto every one of them.

Knight then recommended that Council enact five ordinances which, taken together, would turn the strong mayor into an instructed administrator with little power of independent action. The proposed ordinances:

Make budget approval a separate ordinance from the appropriation ordinance. This change, according to the City Attorney’s office, could eliminate the mayor’s line-item veto.

Define each tab within the budget as an individual department within the appropriation ordinance.

Limit the transfer of funds to programs within a department.

Require the mayor to obtain Council approval before funding any new positions or departments not in the approved salary schedule.

Require the mayor to obtain Council approval before transferring funds from the general fund contingency account or between special accounts.

On a 5-4 split, Council agreed to go forward, with a first reading of the yet-to-be-written ordinances on Nov. 26. Council President Keith King joined Knight, Helen Collins, Joel Miller and Andy Pico in support of the initiatives, while Gaebler, Jan Martin, Val Snider and Merv Bennett were strongly opposed.

“This is your first budget,” said Martin, clearly exasperated. “I don’t see the rush in this. You guys have three more years to go …”

Knight began to reply, but Martin cut him off.

“Don’t interrupt me, Don!” she said sternly, and continued.

Bennett and Gaebler echoed her concerns.

“I’m just not comfortable considering these items now,” said Gaebler. “Let’s take our time.”

“We may not have been on Council for the last budget, but I attended those meetings,” said Miller. “We saw the problems, and (these ordinances will assure) that the body that’s closest to the people has the power to determine where their dollars will go.”

Next move, Mayor Bach.