Let this be a lesson to any Democrat who tries to have a say in county business.
The all-Republican El Paso County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday reprimanded two Democratic office-holders who dared suggest commissioners pause before making a $50 million decision, so the public could get a better grip on what's about to happen.
Public trustee Tom Mowle, who's running for clerk and recorder, got bawled out for airing his concerns in the media about plans to buy part of the Intel campus and move an array of county offices to Garden of the Gods Road. Later, state Rep. Michael Merrifield was chastised for not conveying citizens' concerns from neighborhood meetings to commissioners privately, instead of at a public meeting.
Then, citing a narrow window in financial markets to borrow money, commissioners voted unanimously to buy three buildings formerly occupied by Intel and to remodel Centennial Hall and the County Administration Building to accommodate the musical-chairs shuffle involving about a dozen county offices.
Officials for years have lamented the deteriorating condition of county buildings, and being too broke to fix them. For example, they say, the Health Department building at 301 S. Union Blvd., needs new heating and cooling systems, but those costs could exceed the building's value, considering it contains asbestos.
Deputy County Administrator Monnie Gore investigated up to 100 vacant buildings around town before honing in on the Intel option. Buying a 1,000-space parking garage, 300,000-square-foot office building and wastewater plant that will house emergency vehicles at the Intel site will cost $25 million; making county facilities more energy-efficient, $13.5 million; and remodeling existing buildings to accommodate the shift, $11 million.
All without a tax increase.
During a four-hour hearing Tuesday, Mowle asked commissioners to delay a vote until the public could feel confident the Intel solution was the best. He noted that other buildings are available for lesser cost, such as the Macy's space at the Citadel mall and the nearly empty Rustic Hills retail area. Mowle said he talked with many people who said they first learned of the plan in news reports of commissioners' June 1 meeting, where the Intel proposal was unveiled. Only on that day was the proposal posted to the county's website.
"When it was presented, I talked to quite a few people in the community who are very well-connected," Mowle said, "and found out they weren't as well-connected as they thought they were."
That set off Commissioner Amy Lathen, who asserted officials have conducted work sessions, town hall meetings and "a litany of public outreach."
"All of this has been addressed," she told Mowle. "It's been addressed in a public forum repeatedly."
Commissioner Sallie Clark then jumped on Mowle, saying, "I'm concerned that we had to read your comments in the press. There's ways to do it, and that's not the way to do it — go out and write an op-ed piece instead of coming to commissioners."
Mowle responded, "My concern has been a lack of public awareness. It's an appropriate way to bring a matter to the public's attention."
Later in the meeting, County Treasurer Sandra Damron, also a Republican, told the board she found it interesting that Mowle, who she said has tried to "withdraw" from the county, is now showing interest in its government.
Merrifield got similar treatment.
A candidate for commissioner, Merrifield told the board he's been attending numerous neighborhood meetings. Before June 1, he said he heard nothing from attendees on the Intel issue.
"In the two meetings I've had since, that's the major concern," he said of the Intel deal. "The general public has not been aware of it until it was in the papers."
He suggested commissioners postpone a decision for two weeks "so [citizens] are satisfied you did your due diligence. The assessment of the public is it's being rushed through without their input. Voters are very cynical."
Clark noted to Merrifield that she was unaware questions arose at meetings Merrifield attended.
"I don't remember being invited to your meetings," she said. "If you hear questions like that, please pick up the phone and call us."
Clark said a delay would "keep us from moving forward" to address crucial facilities needs that have been building for at least a decade.
Later, Peggy Littleton, a Republican running against Merrifield, accused Merrifield of being uninformed and not reading newspapers. Local media reported in March and April that the Intel building was on the county's radar, but the specific reshuffle plan wasn't outlined in news reports until last week.
Members of the business community hailed the project as "a tremendous opportunity" and a "brilliant move." Other elected officials praised it, and even Ron Butlin with the Downtown Partnership expressed support, noting the county says the number of employees working downtown won't change.
County Assessor Mark Lowderman noted the county would pay about $76 per square foot of office space at the largely furnished Intel complex, not including the garage, compared to a mean of $124 per square foot of other recently sold office space.
Added Jan Doran, representing several citizen groups: "The need is great. The time is right. This makes great sense."
Several players in the deal will make out handily. Olive Real Estate Group will be paid a 2.25 percent commission on the sale, or about $562,500. Bond attorneys and underwriters will receive substantial fees, not yet quantified.
The purchase also will take money out of tax coffers of the city, county, School District 11 and Pikes Peak Library District, because government ownership means the property won't be subject to property tax. The 2009 tax bill for the Intel campus totals $354,600, with the biggest chunk, $256,127, going to District 11. How much of that tax bill will be wiped out isn't clear, but D-11 finance director Glenn Gustafson says a portion of its loss will be backfilled by the state and another portion by district taxpayers.
Lease-purchase securities and Build America Bonds, a program activated by the Obama administration last year that offers a low interest rate, will finance the $49.5 million deal.
It will be orchestrated through El Paso County Facilities Corp., a front organization for the county that will own the property until the county pays off the lease in 25 years. This strategy allows the county to dodge the state constitution's requirement that debt be approved by voters, similar to Certificates of Participation the county used in 2002 to fund $80 million in judicial center and jail additions without voter approval.
The debt will be repaid using existing funds spent on rent and facilities charges by agencies involved in the moves, and by selling vacated buildings.
Less than two years ago, the county's financial situation was so grave officials begged voters to raise sales taxes by $75 million a year, a measure soundly drubbed at the polls. But adding $80 million in principal and interest to the $178.5 million the county already owes won't erode the county's credit rating, budget officer Nicola Sapp says, because "annual lease obligations" aren't technically debt.
"We are absolutely not concerned about our bond rating," Sapp says in an e-mail, noting the county's bond rating of AA-, "high grade, high quality," because of the county's "strong fiscal management and sound financial situation."
The moves are expected to begin in September.