As the mayoral election unfolds, open-space advocates are slightly uneasy.
Lee Milner, one of the architects of the original TOPS initiative which voters approved in 1997, wonders whether the new “strong mayor” will be willing to spend money acquiring new tracts of open space when the city can’t afford to maintain and/or improve its current inventory of parks and open space.
Milner specifically mentioned Steve Bach as one who might refuse to make new acquisitions, even though the initiative mandates that 65 percent of the funds raised by the one-10th of a percent dedicated sales tax be used to acquire new properties.
At a Monday mayoral forum, I asked Bach a simple question.
“If there’s an opportunity to buy a desirable tract, the price is right, and the funds are there (in the TOPS account), would you buy or not?”
Bach looked at me in some amazement.
“Why would that be an issue?” he asked. “Land is never going to be cheaper (than it is now), and if the money’s there, of course you do it.”
It was a comforting reply. It was good to know that Bach understands the importance of TOPS, of open space, and that open space, unlike neighborhood parks, need not be developed for public access immediately.
Yet questions remain, not just for Bach, but for every other candidate.
Imagine yourself in the mayor’s office, trying to figure out how to fund city operations in a sluggish, low-growth, high unemployment economy. Imagine military budgets declining from year to year, as the wars in the Middle East wind down. Imagine a local electorate so tax-averse that no tax increase would ever be considered — you don’t have to imagine that one!
Now consider the various “silos” into which restricted funds flow, including money from the lodgers and automobile rental tax, the public safety sales tax, the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority tax, and the TOPS tax. It’d make the city a lot easier to manage, a lot more efficient, and better able to deliver services if you could somehow get rid of the silos. Would the voters agree to such consolidation, without tax increases, and make your job a lot easier?
Historically, local voters have loved silos. They’re fond of special interest set-asides, convinced that politicians, given undesignated funds, will spend them on riotous living.
But if you’re a visibly frugal, business-friendly mayor, maybe folks would listen to you.
You’d say “Look, I draw up the budget, not a bunch of self-serving bureaucrats. Ask the folks at the City Committee, ask (insert name of prominent conservative who isn’t Doug Bruce), look at my record. These are tough times — we need low taxes and stripped-down efficiency. We can’t have all these stovepipes, these inflexible mandates that have to be renewed every decade. I need to be able to spend money where we need to, not where we’re legally forced to.”
And if you’re the mayor with such a charter change in mind, maybe you hold off spending those TOPS funds until you find out how the voters feel.
Unlikely? Maybe not.
As the conversation with Bach drew to an end, I asked him if he wasn’t a little sick of the incessant meetings and forums.
“No, not at all,” said the famously energetic Bach. “It’s really interesting — but there sure are a lot of them. I was contacted by another group today: the Potholes Coalition. I guess there’s a coalition for everything. Can you believe it?”