Council watches as powers erode

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Since 1991, Colorado Springs residents have often voted to limit the powers of City Council. In that year, city voters instituted the local Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) charter amendment that forbade Council from raising taxes without voter approval and limited annual city revenue growth.

A companion measure phased out a half-cent capital improvements tax that Council had put in place a few years before. For good measure, voters also replaced three Council incumbents with rookie newcomers.

“TABOR certainly changed the way democracy worked,” said Larry Small, who served three terms on Council during the post-TABOR era. “We went from representative democracy to direct democracy.”

Doomsayers predicted that the tax cuts and revenue constraints would eventually make the city ungovernable. Optimists predicted that businesses would flock to Colorado Springs, attracted by limited government and low taxes.

Businesses indeed flocked to Colorado, just as they flocked to California, Florida, Arizona, New York, North Carolina and Texas. The great boom of the Clinton years saw explosive growth in the Sun Belt and in America’s coastal metropolises. The city didn’t become ungovernable, but the restrictions of TABOR and continuing distrust led to the emergence of new techniques of governance.

It was clear that local residents wanted to participate directly in their government, not sit passively by as elected officials and city staff decided the city’s future. It was also clear that the new City Council was quarrelsome and indecisive.

“You go backwards and forwards,” one neighborhood activist told the nine elected officials in the early 1990s, “but you never go anywhere. You’re the Rocking Chair Council!”

A new paradigm

The 1997 passage of the Trails, Open Space and Parks Tax was the turning point. A citizens coalition that included business leaders, trails and open space advocates and elected officials gathered signatures to put the issue before the voters. An identical referred measure had been narrowly defeated two years before, but backers were undeterred. They reasoned that voters would look more favorably upon a citizen-created initiative unburdened by Council baggage.

“The whole culture of government changed,” Small said. “Elected officials had to become facilitators, and work with their constituents to determine what they wanted. They had to be ready to compromise — they couldn’t be out on an island.”

Under newly elected Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, Council adopted a different leadership style in the late 1990s. Council majorities identified problems and created community partnerships to solve them. The first such partnership was the Springs Community Improvement Program (SCIP), tasked with identifying important capital improvements that the city could not easily pay for from existing general fund revenues.

The first SCIP election came in November 1998. TABOR required that the city refund $6.6 million in “excess” tax revenue to residents in 1998. Council asked the SCIP committee to identify five projects that could be funded with the money, and let the voters choose whether to keep the refund or put it to work. Voters approved and followed up four months later by authorizing the city to issue $88 million in municipal bonds to fund 29 additional projects.

Subsequent years saw similarly cooperative measures. In November 2001,  voters approved a 0.4 percent public safety sales tax (PSST). Like TOPS and SCIP, PSST came with carefully drawn conditions, including strict “maintenance of effort” clauses. Three years later, voters in EL Paso County, Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs and Green Mountain Falls approved a 1 percent sales tax to fund the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (PPRTA) for 10 years, 2005-2014.

PPRTA came into being only after a long gestation involving community leaders, elected officials and residents. Its creators strove for transparency and accountability. Voters were asked to approve 72 specifically named, transportation-related improvements to be accomplished in 10 years, after which the tax’s capital improvement portion would expire. In 2012, voters approved extending the CIP tax another 10 years, approving another lengthy project list for 2015-2024.

The rainwater tax

In the early years of the 21st century, it was clear Colorado Springs would have to find some means of funding stormwater needs. It was also clear that Pueblo County commissioners would not approve the construction of the Southern Delivery System through Pueblo County without a meaningful commitment to upstream stormwater control.

Most Front Range cities, including Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins, use a fee mechanism for stormwater funding. The fee is determined by the amount of impermeable surface on a given property. In 2005 Council created the Stormwater Enterprise, and gave it authority to collect an impermeable surface fee.

Taxpayers noisily resisted. Led by TABOR author Douglas Bruce, opponents called the fee a “rainwater tax,” arguing that it was a de facto property tax increase that had not been authorized by taxpayers, as the charter required. After failing to persuade Council to overturn the fee, Bruce marshaled signature collectors to put “Issue 300” on the ballot in 2009. It passed by a 54-45 margin, and Council terminated the Stormwater Enterprise soon after.

The USOC deal

In 2007, the U.S. Olympic Committee quietly made it known that the organization might move from Colorado Springs if offered a better deal elsewhere. City leaders moved quickly to create a retention package that would keep the USOC in town and provide other community benefits. Public input was minimal.

On March 31, 2008, City Council unanimously approved what appeared to be a well-crafted private/public partnership. As described in the city’s self-congratulatory press release, everyone would benefit.

“Colorado Springs will partner with LandCo Equity Partners, the State of Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, El Pomar Foundation and the Downtown Development Authority to provide an incentive package that will keep the United States Olympic Committee and the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs,” the press release crowed. “The City is arranging for low-interest financing for the project, the OEDIT is contributing $500,000 to the USOC, LandCo is arranging for nearly $23.5 million in private funding and El Pomar Foundation is contributing $2 million. In addition, Mayor Rivera is spearheading a major fundraising campaign to provide the community opportunities to participate in the effort.”

The deal was done … or was it? After months of official equivocating and rumors of LandCo’s inability to perform, the deal collapsed amid a welter of lawsuits, mutual recriminations and the eventual indictment of LandCo’s two top executives on multiple criminal charges. The city was left holding the bag and eventually had to fund almost the entire package.

The vaunted “low-interest financing” turned out to be $32.5 million in “certificates of participation” secured by de facto mortgages on the Police Operations Center and Fire Station 22. Residents were not asked to authorize the notes, on the grounds that they weren’t long-term obligations of the city.

Voters change the government

City residents were furious. They blamed the debacle on Council incompetence and cronyism. It didn’t help that Mayor Lionel Rivera had been formally accused of ethics violations stemming from a financial relationship with LandCo CEO Ray Marshall. In November 2010, voters approved a sweeping charter amendment that changed the form of city government.

In the new “Strong Mayor” form of government, executive and administrative power passed to the mayor. Council remained the city’s legislative body, retaining authority over Colorado Springs Utilities. All Council actions except land-use items became subject to the mayor’s veto, with a two-thirds majority required to override.

In the 2011 city elections, voters chose a mayor and seven councilmembers. Only one, Jan Martin, had previous political experience. Mayor and Council clashed repeatedly, as each sought to define the limits of their power.

The voters were not amused by the infighting and tossed out the four incumbents who ran for re-election in 2013.

Despite the changes, the fights intensified. In the latest iteration, Council President Keith King has suggested that voters be asked to amend the charter yet again, authorizing Council to hire its own attorney and staff.

And the winner is…

If past experience is any guide, internal quarrels may prevent both mayor and Council from accomplishing much of anything. On the surface, both Council and the administration have followed the Makepeace model in separate endeavors.

Mayor Steve Bach’s administration partnered with a star-studded roster of community leaders to launch the City for Champions proposal, while City Council has strongly backed a citizen-driven initiative to create a regional stormwater and flood control authority. Yet the Mayor has expressed serious misgivings about Council’s preferred stormwater solution, offering an alternative plan. Council has made it clear that Bach’s alternative is a nonstarter. If, as expected, county commissioners supported by a Council majority put the question on the November ballot, the stage will be set for a particularly nasty fight between the two feuding branches of city government.

Despite the administration’s success in securing $120 million in state funding for City for Champions, a majority of Council members appear either to oppose or have strong reservations about the deal. Some have been bitterly and publicly critical, denouncing the deal as a tax-funded boondoggle.

When the time comes for the voters to have their say, will they ignore our quarrelsome leaders and consider the stormwater and C4C proposals on merit alone? Or will they assume that both must be flawed, and approve neither?

TABOR author Douglas Bruce suggests the latter. During a Council meeting several months ago, the felonious gadfly had this to say.

“I don’t know why you’re bothering with this (regional stormwater authority),” he remarked. “If the mayor of the city opposes it, it will have no chance of passing.”

“Those bodies have to come together and compromise,” said Larry Small. “They’re not there to have their own personal agendas satisfied. The city is divided by confusion, but all of us want the same thing. We want a good place to live. People don’t know what to believe.”

Small had a final word of advice for mayor and Council.

“As my grandfather used to say, don’t argue with a fool in public because the bystanders can’t tell the difference.”