In a sweeping series of vetoes Wednesday morning, Mayor Steve Bach challenged most of City Council’s proposed changes to his 2014 city budget.
Bach vetoed Council’s $1.3 million cut to the budget of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as the elimination of funding for the Regional Business Alliance. He also vetoed Council’s decision to fund park watering by taking funds from the Police Department budget and raiding the city’s fund balance, which Chief of Staff Laura Neumann called the city’s “Rainy Day Fund.”
The mayor repeated his suggestion that Council tap Utilities for all or a part of park watering costs. A wall chart compared local watering costs per 1,000 gallons with a dozen other Colorado cities. Colorado Springs, at $8.22, was far above every city listed.
He called upon Council to restore funding for a deputy director of the Office of Emergency Management, and rejected Council’s characterization of its action in appropriating funds for two additional park rangers as a “major legislative policy determination.”
“At this critical time when the city is attempting to recover from two fires and a flood,” Bach said, “it’s not the time to cut funds from the Convention and Visitors Bureau.”
Noting that The Broadmoor contributes nearly one third of the Lodgers and Automobile Rentals Tax, he read from a letter from Broadmoor CEO Steve Bartolin excoriating Council’s decision.
Bach’s most significant action was the last to be announced.
“Regretfully, I’m compelled to veto certain sections of the appropriation ordinance,” he said, “because they are unlawful and in violation of the charter.”
Section 1, which Bach vetoed in its entirety, increases the number of city departments from five to 12, and forbids the mayor from making any interdepartmental funds transfers without the permission of Council.
Council’s action, Bach said “impermissibly interferes with the executive function of government.”
“Council has been advised by three separate city attorneys that (this action) violates the charter,” said Bach, “yet they have gone forward. This is a sad day.”
The mayor was visibly angry yet remarkably plainspoken is discussing Council’s action.
“This is all about trying to gain power and diminish the mayor,” he said. “It’s intentionally undermining the mayor’s power. City Council should be working full time on the economy – not micromanaging.”
To support his position, he quoted statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to their metrics, Colorado Springs has added only 1,700 jobs in the last 12 years, while Denver has added 74,000, Fort Collins 16,000, Oklahoma City 56,000 and Austin 188,000.
City Councilors Val Snider and Jill Gaebler sat quietly in the audience. Neither made any comment, but it would appear that, since Council approved the budget by an 8-1 majority, few of Bach’s vetoes would survive. To override, Council needs a 6-3 margin.
If Council overrides Bach’s veto of Section 1 of the Appropriation Ordinance, a major confrontation between the two branches of government will ensue.
The mayor’s staff believes that law and precedent are on the administration’s side. In a 2006 case, which pitted Gov. Bill Owens against the Colorado General Assembly, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the Assembly’s attempt to impose certain restrictions upon the governor’s administrative functions was illegal.
In that case, Colorado General Assembly v. Owens, 04SC816, the Court rejected the Legislature’s attempt to add definitional “headnotes” to the general appropriations bill in 2002 and 2003. The court ruled that “The Legislature intruded into the executive branch’s responsibility to administer the laws and violated the separation of powers doctrine established in Article III of our constitution.”
The history of the lawsuit is interesting. Gov. Owens ignored the headnotes in the 2002 budget, but the Assembly didn’t contest his action until 2003. The case wasn’t decided until 2006. Attorney General John Suthers represented Owens, while the Assembly was represented by an all-star legal team that included Mark Grueskin, Ed Ramey and Blain Myhre.
Sources close to the City Attorney’s office confirmed that Bach will likely follow Owens’ precedent and ignore Council’s action. He would say that he’s bound by the City Charter and the State Constitution, and cannot act in violation of the law – and that to comply with Council’s action would be to violate the law.
Would Council then hire an outside law firm, and sue the mayor? If General Assembly v. Owens is any guide, it might take years to resolve the case and cost local taxpayers millions of dollars.
Bach offered a compromise of sorts.
Speaking directly to Councilor Gaebler, who had Tuesday voiced her concern about possible raids on the park budget, Bach offered to add parks as a separate department.
“That should answer your concerns, Jill,” he said, “and that only makes six departments, not 12.”
Council must respond to Bach’s vetoes within five days. Bach will announce his response to Council’s possible veto overrides on Dec. 18. So fasten your seat belts – unless the two branches of city government can compose their differences, we’re in for quite a ride.