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City's subtle helping hands

City Sage


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What organization in Colorado Springs is the region's biggest donor to charities and nonprofits? That's easy: El Pomar Foundation hands out $21 million annually, much going to local recipients.

And who's in second place? The answer may surprise you.

Colorado Springs Utilities is planning to divvy up about $761,505 among dozens of organizations in the next fiscal year. In the past, checks have run from $200 (for a Pikes Peak Mechanical Contractors Association corporate membership) to $240,000 (Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance).

That's a lot, but not even close to what the city will give to private organizations and events.

All but a fraction of the estimated $4 million proceeds from the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax will go to the private sector. The Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, at $2.66 million, is by far the largest recipient of that largesse. Other substantial grants will go to the Business Alliance ($70,000), the Pikes Peak Hill Climb and Fan Fest ($100,000) and the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Summer Symphony Series ($108,875). Other, smaller organizations will get a few thousand dollars.

Altogether, Utilities and the city will divert approximately $4.7 million in ratepayer and/or taxpayer funds to private organizations and events.

Many American cities have programs to support the arts, local history and tourism/economic development. "Destination marketing organizations" such as the CVB are supported in part by local taxes on hotel rooms. Colorado Springs is unique only in the comparative scale of its transfers and the apparent lack of accountability of recipients.

No city rep sits on the CVB board, though the city provides 80 percent of its budget. By contrast, two Denver city councilors and that city's director of economic development sit on the Denver CVB board. In Albuquerque, two councilors and two senior city officials are CVB board members.

Other peer cities also appear to exercise more control over nonprofit grants or align them more with budgetary goals. In Boise, Idaho, a Department of Arts and History has a $780,000 annual budget, with small direct grants to artists and performers. Denver's Department of Arts & Venues administers the "Public Art One Percent" program and supports arts-related initiatives and events. Denver's nonprofit community benefits from the voter-approved six-county Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which has distributed more than $756 million to nonprofits since 1988.

Compared to Denver, our city government is a penny-ante player. But that may not be the point. It's worth asking whether the city and CSU have in effect created a public charitable foundation. If so, it's a big one.

Federal law requires that private foundations make annual grants totaling at least 5 percent of their assets. A foundation giving away $4.7 million might have assets of around $94 million. And 100 percent of the CSU/city grants are local.

That's where politics comes into play. When the city and CSU combine to give the Business Alliance a substantial chunk of its budget, aren't they indirectly supporting RBA's political agenda as well as its job creation activity? The RBA ran quarter-page ads in the Gazette opposing Amendment 66 prior to the November election. Is the CVB completely focused on attracting visitors to the region, or is it really just the tourist industry trade association, no more entitled to city subsidies than, say, the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors? And does Utilities' steadfast support of established nonprofits inhibit the creation and growth of nonprofit start-ups?

Such questions haven't come up often in recent years, probably because of the nonprofit community's political influence. Elected officials tend to have strong links to local nonprofits — they (or their spouses) sit on boards, volunteer and contribute. That's good — they're the kind of people most of us would want in office.

But shouldn't charitable and nonprofit donations be decoupled from government and politics? It might make sense to create an independent entity to distribute the moolah, or maybe use one that's already there.

Just hand over $4.7 million to El Pomar or the Pikes Peak Community Foundation. They'd know how to spend it.


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