New political year looks similar, but it’s not

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Several floods struck Manitou Springs and the Westside in 2013, adding to stormwater concerns.

Several floods struck Manitou Springs and the Westside in 2013, adding to stormwater concerns.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — or, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

As we entered 2013, the Denver Broncos were 13-3 and hopefully bound for the Super Bowl. The Pikes Peak region was recovering from a wildfire that destroyed hundreds of homes, the local economy was enjoying a fragile recovery, and Westsiders worried about flooding from the Waldo Canyon burn scar.

Community leaders were debating how best to control floods and wildfires, and a half-dozen seats on a quarrelsome City Council would be up for grabs in April. In office for a year and a half, Mayor Steve Bach was still looking for an economic game-changer, a way to pull the city out of its long funk.

As we enter 2014, the Broncos are 13-3 and appear Super Bowl-bound (please). The region is recovering from another disastrous fire, while flooding off the burn scar was much worse than anticipated. Community leaders have yet to resolve their debates over flood control, and summer wildfires still threaten the community. The economy seems stronger, but unemployment remains high.

City voters cleaned house in April, tossing out four incumbents and seating six rookies. Despite (or maybe because of) such wholesale changes, Council remained as quarrelsome and divided as ever — but Mayor Bach may have gotten his game-changer with the City for Champions.

The main topics going into 2014:

Stormwater

By mid-2013 it was clear that Bach and his administration were on one side of the stormwater debate, and virtually every other regional elected official was on the other. Bach wanted each local jurisdiction to address its own stormwater issues, with limited regional cooperation. County commissioners and the Colorado Springs City Council supported the creation of a regional stormwater authority similar to the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority.

After months of meetings, proposals, counter-proposals, independent analyses and professional polling, the two sides haven’t come to agreement. In theory, Council and the commissioners hold all the cards going forward, since they can put a regional initiative on the ballot without the mayor’s OK.

Would it pass? Polling seems to show that El Paso County voters support a regional solution to stormwater problems, but getting them to approve a tax or fee to finance the solution may still be difficult — especially if Mayor Bach publicly opposes it.

“I don’t know why you’re bothering with this,” said TABOR author Douglas Bruce at a recent presentation by the Stormwater Task Force to regional elected officials. “You know that you won’t be able to pass anything if the mayor opposes it.”

But a veteran El Paso County elected official, who isn’t involved in the debate, took a different tack.

“I’m not sure that his support or opposition makes much difference,” he said. “His supporters on Council all lost in April.”

Bach has proposed that the city issue about $170 million in general obligation bonds to fund stormwater and other infrastructure needs for perhaps years. Bond payments would not severely impact the city budget, being roughly equivalent to those on the expiring SCIP bonds.

As presently conceived, a regional stormwater authority would be fee-based. Modeled after the city’s Stormwater Enterprise (which voters terminated in 2006), it would be funded by property owners making annual payments based on impermeable surface. The fee would be collected by the county treasurer. Like the PPRTA, voters would be asked to approve a list of designated capital projects at set intervals. The authority would be governed by a board of regional elected officials, with representation determined in part by each jurisdiction’s financial contribution.

Should Council and commissioners go forward with a fee-based regional authority on the November ballot, expect fireworks. The outcome might well hinge upon next summer’s weather. If heavy flooding once again plagues Manitou and the Westside, voters may be more willing to approve a de facto property tax.

City for Champions

If Mayor Bach and the private sector backers who persuaded the Colorado Economic Development Commission to authorize $120 million in state tax increment financing for the City for Champions proposal can make equivalent progress in 2014, Bach will have his game-changer — and then some.

Compared to stormwater, the order of battle is reversed. Bach, the county commissioners and every other regional elected body pushed hard for approval, while a majority of City Councilors refused to give even conceptual approval to the proposal.

While Council can delay implementation of and perhaps even kill the downtown projects, it seems unlikely. An outraged business community, led by Broadmoor CEO Steve Bartolin, persuaded Council President Keith King to reverse field and support immediate full funding of the Convention and Visitors Bureau in the 2014 budget.

It’s one thing to have been skeptical of C4C when it was nothing but a speculative presentation featuring possibly dubious numbers, but it’s quite another to put $120 million in state funding at risk. The path to assured funding remains complex, meaning that Bach and the project teams will have to be agile, well-prepared, and quick to respond to changing conditions in order to move forward.

“I don’t think we can get anything done on either of these issues (stormwater and City for Champions) unless we can work together,” said Councilor Jill Gaebler. “If we don’t get anything done, we all lose.”

By mid-2014, the way ahead should be clear. If all goes well, expect major commitments from private donors for both downtown projects as well as a workable structure for local public funding. If not, expect argument, delay, and continuing skirmishes between …

Mayor Steve Bach has found himself entangled in a struggle with Council over control issues.

Mayor Steve Bach has found himself entangled in a struggle with Council over control issues.

Bach and Council

The relationship between the two branches of city government couldn’t be much worse. As 2013 ended, a 6-3 Council majority had overridden the mayor’s veto of Council’s restructuring initiative. Saying Bach’s established five-department budget structure was not compliant with the charter, Council created five “appropriations departments,” thereby forbidding the mayor from moving funds between departments without Council assent. Despite Council’s claim that such a change would increase transparency and accountability, Bach characterized it as an attempt by the legislative body to make administrative decisions.

Following the override, Bach said he’d ignore Council’s action, calling it illegal. In a subsequent letter, King warned Bach that as Americans “we can’t choose which laws to obey.”

The two sides seem to be on a collision course. If it comes to a Council v. Bach lawsuit, it may become even more difficult for the two sides to work together cooperatively.

While all involved claim to be motivated solely by principle, personalities may play a role. King, a successful businessman and longtime elected official, may see Bach as an inexperienced upstart, while Bach may be angry that King doesn’t respect the city’s strong mayor.

Unless one or both combatants draw away from the brink, the bright promise of 2014 may be eclipsed by pointless (and expensive) wrangling.

“That’s why I voted against overriding the mayor’s veto,” said City Councilor Jan Martin. “It is concerning — as I said then, this is the time for our community to move forward.”

November elections

Get ready for another avalanche of negative campaign ads as the election season gets underway in early 2014. At stake: Mark Udall’s seat in the U.S. Senate and John Hickenlooper’s tenure as governor.

While a lot can happen in the next few months, both incumbents are favored — in part because they won’t have to go through expensive, damaging primary campaigns.

Their Republican opponents are likely to emerge battered and bruised from the party’s biennial mudwrestling competition. The process requires that candidates pledge fealty to all things conservative, which may not help them in the general election. Look for Udall and Hickenlooper to issue lofty, statesman-like messages while leaving the dirty work of negative campaigning to surrogates.

Springs residents may have a dog in the fight, as state Sen. Owen Hill and Rep. Amy Stephens are pursuing Udall’s seat. Hill has little experience, having served only two years in the Senate, while the term-limited Stephens has had House leadership roles. Left-leaning website Colorado Pols noted: “She’s symbolic of the GOP’s troubles; might have best chance in General Election, but probably can’t win a primary.”

County Clerk (and former commissioner) Wayne Williams is running for secretary of state. The canny veteran should be favored for the GOP nomination and the general election, given that he doesn’t yet have a primary opponent. He hopes to replace Republican Scott Gessler, who’s running for governor, so Williams isn’t facing an entrenched incumbent.

Of the local statehouse races, the most interesting matchup will be the battle for Senate District 11 between two political warriors. Newly elected Republican Sen. Bernie Herpin will likely face former Democratic Rep. Mike Merrifield.

Democrats, still smarting over the successful recall of Senate President John Morse, will go all out to reclaim the seat — and Republicans will work just as hard to retain it. After eight years in the state House, Merrifield lost races for county commissioner (2010) and for City Council in 2011. Merrifield lost to Peggy Littleton and Lisa Czelatdko, while Herpin was vanquished from City Council by Jill Gaebler.

Neither candidate appears to have a primary opponent, though recent history suggests both are vulnerable — especially to articulate, intelligent women.