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City considers quashing finance group


When city pols were pondering what roads to fix and which bridges to rebuild as part of the city's capital-improvements wish list three years ago, they said they wanted to leave the big decisions to the citizenry.

To that end, the Colorado Springs City Council created a series of committees under the Springs Capital Improvement Program, a process to prioritize projects and figure out how to pay for them.

Apparently, there's such a thing as too much input.

At least, that's the spin some critics are putting on a proposal to restructure a citizens' finance committee established to decide perhaps the biggest question of all -- how to pay for future funding projects.

"It's no surprise," said anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce, who stacked the SCIP finance committee last year with his supporters in an effort to push his idea of selling city assets to pay for capital improvements. "The Council lied when it said they would listen to the citizens."

Some anti-growth advocates agree. "It's obvious the City Council was not really interested in our opinions anyway," said neighborhood activist Laurel Bahe. "So in that respect, I don't think it matters what they do to the committee."

In short, some SCIP leaders are saying it's time to limit the finance committee to 11 Council-appointed members. In the past, anyone could participate in committee meetings on an ad-hoc basis.

The finance group became a center of controversy before last fall's election -- in which voters approved a city plan to borrow $104 million for capital improvements -- after various factions in the committee began fighting over how city capital-improvement projects should be funded.

The problem, said Nancy Lewis, the former city parks director who co-chairs SCIP, was that anyone could show up and join the finance committee at any time during the process.

"Certainly, there has to be a finance committee, but I'm not certain there has to be a wide-open door and say anyone can just come on in anytime," Lewis said.

Lewis added that no final decisions have been made about the finance committee, and that the idea of restructuring it will be discussed by the SCIP coordinating committee, which oversees the whole process, in the first week of October. "We just want to re-examine what worked and what didn't," she said.

Likewise, city Finance Director Mike Anderson said the move has nothing to do with denying critics a voice. He said the proposal would allow Council to appoint people with a background in city finance.

"Plus, it's a lot easier to have nine or 10 people on a committee instead of 40 people," he added. "That can be an unworkable group."

The critics, however, see the move as an attempt to squelch those who come up with alternative approaches to paying for city infrastructure -- ideas such as selling off city assets or charging impact fees on new development.

"It all depends on who you appoint to the committee, but past history shows [the Council] appoints people who tell them what they want to hear," said Bahe.

Activists like Bahe have long maintained that the SCIP committee seats have been disproportionately filled by people in the real-estate field, who have tended to resist the idea of implementing developers' fees.

Bahe was one of a handful of people on the finance committee who recommended paying for roads, bridges and drainage by taxing development, which she blames for creating most of the city's infrastructure needs.

Meanwhile, a larger group of anti-government activists on the committee, led by Bruce, authored a report last year that suggested selling off city-owned enterprises such as Memorial Hospital to fund capital improvements.

Ultimately, however, the SCIP coordinating committee went for a plan recommended by the finance committee chairman, Doug Stimple. A real-estate developer, Stimple favored paying for capital improvements by borrowing the money, then paying off the debt by raising city sales taxes and imposing auto-registration fees.

That decision led Bruce, Bahe and others to charge that their input was being ignored. "The committee was a joke anyway," said Bahe. "It was obvious that they wanted the bond issue, and that's what they got."

SCIP leaders, however, strongly deny that charge. According to Lewis, "If you examine what we sent forward to Council [last summer] before the election, you'll find our recommendations included bits and pieces from all the different groups."

Lewis said it was not within the authority of SCIP to make major policy recommendations regarding the sale of city assets, but that the ideas were forwarded to Council along with the recommendation for a bond issue.

"Council got every single word of it," she said. "We edited nothing."

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