- Matthew Schniper
- Stormwater and a lack of police are just two of Mayor Suthers' big concerns.
Approaching the two-year mark after his decisive victory in the Colorado Springs mayoral election, John Suthers feels a bit astonished. He couldn't have predicted the "incredible momentum" he's gained in achieving three goals that anchored his campaign: fixing the city's neglected infrastructure, shaping a political environment conducive to economic development, and job creation.
"Frankly, I can't believe how much progress we've made in 20 months," he says during a Feb. 23 interview in his office.
Just outside that room, a wall depicts Suthers' lengthy, well-connected government service that has included serving as district attorney, U.S. attorney, head of the Colorado Department of Corrections and state attorney general. He calls our attention to photos of him with the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the late President Gerald Ford and former President George W. Bush, among many others.
Usually curt and to the point, Suthers on this day stretches what was scheduled as a 30-minute interview into a full hour. Perhaps he wants to bask in his achievements — persuading voters to approve a $250-million, five-year sales tax increase for roads; creating a $460-million, 20-year agreement with Pueblo County to fund the city's drainage needs, and subduing a once-rocky relationship between Council and the mayor's office.
But Suthers is too pragmatic to rest on his laurels for long. While he talks in endearing terms about his hometown of Colorado Springs, he also speaks frankly about high hurdles that lie ahead, most notably a shortage of cops and money to hire more.
What is your long game on flood control, and what role will City Council play?
First of all, it's more than flood control. Stormwater is both flood mitigation and water quality. The federal part of this case is all about water quality. The end game is to get a stormwater program that does right by the citizens of Colorado Springs and also meets all legal muster. And right now, the outstanding legal issue is with the federal and state government — the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
My goal is to hopefully reach a resolution with them and then assess whether there's any more money involved than the intergovernmental agreement calls for. And then at some point, with the cooperation of Council, go to voters with a long-term solution to stormwater. Absent a dedicated revenue stream, that [$460 million for the agreement with Pueblo] is going to come from the general fund. That will put a lot of pressure on the general fund.
So the long-term goal, hopefully with the assistance of Council, and I don't know how we would pull it off without Council, is to go to the voters. That would provide a funding stream for stormwater and allow us to free up some general fund money for some other obligations I see coming down the pike.
Notably, we, I think in the next five to 10 years, have to significantly increase the size of the police department, put more officers on the street.
The other major budget issue we're falling short on is fleet replacement. Fleet for the city public works in particular is not what it should be. The average age of public works vehicles on the street is almost 15 years old.
Any chance you would dovetail into something greener when replacing vehicles?
We'll look at a combination of cost and environment, but cost will be a huge factor.
Talking about police and fire, five to 10 years? Isn't that a long time to address a need that seems more urgent?
I would hope we would begin fairly quickly. I hope to have this case [EPA lawsuit] resolved in the next year.
With Donald Trump in the White House, any chance there might be a settlement or dismissal of the lawsuit?
Haven't heard that at all. We had the first court hearing last week. We recommended going to a third-party mediator, which we think that's in our interest, and the federal government rejected that. We think we have a great case to show for all the alleged sins of the past. We're moving forward, and I'll stack our stormwater program and commitments up to any city in Colorado, but [the lawsuit] is going forward.
The Banning Lewis Ranch annexation agreement is pending. What, if any, role will the public play, or is that already negotiated?
There's a lot of negotiations going on. The Council will have a couple hearings on it, and most of it will revolve around the economics of it. Our obligation is to make sure this annexation agreement pays for itself, that we'll generate the types of revenue we need in terms of police, fire, parks, things like that.
One of the things we've shown to Council is the extent to which the city has lost revenue by not developing Banning Lewis Ranch. It's not like development didn't take place — it just hopscotched over us into the county.
This is the last large undeveloped parcel [roughly 18,000 acres]. There's development out there, but there's still a major portion undeveloped. The economy is good, and developers are ready to do that, and make sure all the infrastructure will be paid for.
But the original agreement did require development to pay its way, so how is the new one different?
The bottom line is the first annexation agreement, that [Frank] Aries agreed to was clearly done by a developer who had no intention whatsoever to develop it. He didn't push back on anything. It had him building super-highways. It had a capacity that we're no longer talking about. In hindsight, he was looking at something he could flip. And that's why everybody who's owned it since has tried so hard to get out from under the original annexation agreement.
The city recognized years ago there's going to have to be an amended agreement or that area will remain undeveloped forever. There's some crown jewel open space out there that we need to make sure is done right. It's owned by Nor'wood [Development Group], but we certainly hope to acquire as much as we possibly can.
It wouldn't be a package deal?
No. It would be separate and apart from the annexation agreement.
In the next six months will we see a proposal come before Council?
I would say sooner than that. I would imagine it would be something the new Council would take up very quickly.
How do you extend police and fire coverage to that area when you're already strapped for resources?
That's one reason we need to hire more cops. I think there's eventually the thought of one [new] police substation and two fire substations [in BLR].
We're told some fire gear is raggedy and reserve vehicles are tapped out.
The fire department is well equipped. They have the best fleet replacement and do not have an attrition problem. The police department has an attrition problem, and, frankly, most police departments today have attrition problems.
Is there anything you can do immediately to reduce attrition?
We attempted last year. The city has a consultant who looks at our wage scales across the board and each year makes recommendations for the area most out of whack. Last year, they identified police academy trainees and patrolman 4, 3 and 2. Last year while other city employees got a 2 percent raise, those employees got a 5- to 6-percent increase. We do that every year.
But cops still say their pay lags behind officers in metro areas of Colorado.
There's a gap on a raw basis, but with cost of living taken into account, it's not much of a gap at all. If you took a vote of officers, they would say, "Compensation is more important to us than more cops," but from a public safety standpoint, we have to focus on putting more cops on the street, as well as making sure all our public safety professionals are adequately compensated.
It seems like the crime rate is going up.
Our overall crime rates remain quite good for a city our size. I'm very concerned about drug policy in our state, and if you look at robbery in particular, virtually every suspect, it's largely driven by drug abuse issues in the community, the state.
Which candidates are you endorsing in the Council races?
I'm not endorsing anyone. Quite frankly, as you know, my goals were very clear. I wanted to create a political environment that we hadn't had for a while that was conducive to economic development and community development. We've made a lot of progress. There's still a lot of noise, sometimes from Council members. I've tried not to engage, tried to be the adult in the room.
Companies aren't saying, 'Oh my God, what a mess there.' We're doing very well in the economic development area. I hope we can continue to have a very workable majority to move forward on the issues facing the city. My whole campaign was based upon we've gotta address these long-neglected infrastructure problems. Frankly, I can't believe how much progress we've made in 20 months. Streets, stormwater. Those are the two biggies that have been the 800-pound gorilla for the city for a long time.
My third thing was job creation. We went from 2000 to 2015 when the city grew by 125,000 with virtually no job growth ... and we had no wage growth. In 2015 and 2016, we've averaged over 8,000 jobs a year. And we're now seeing significant wage growth for the first time in 15 years. The last quarter, we're far above the rest of Colorado in wage growth.
My bottom line is I hope we can have a Council that we can continue the incredible momentum Colorado Springs now has.
We have 10,100 job openings, and 10,300 people looking for work. Not all of those people might have the job skills or be able to pass a drug test. ... The top 1,500 jobs pay $95,000. The job to be in right now is registered nurse. You can name your price. Both hospital systems have about 250 nurse openings. The Children's Hospital is coming online. The whole economic picture looks really, really good. We're outstripping the national economy and for the first time in, gosh, a long time, we're outstripping the rest of the state.
Will you stand for reelection?
Too early to say. I'm 65 years old. Lots of things can happen, you know? Maybe run out of town on a rail by then.
- Matthew Schniper
- Suthers hasn't yet decided on a second term.
You've had a lot of success.
In my long public service career, the last two years have been pretty meaningful in the sense we've moved the ball a lot farther than I thought we would two years ago.
Something can be said for consistency. Wouldn't it be sad to see a one-term mayor and another one-term mayor?
Yeah. Hopefully, [a second term] is in the cards.
What other opportunities might there be? A federal judgeship?
Let me tell you the bottom line on that. [Sen.} Cory Gardner said, "John, are you interested in a federal judgeship?" I said, "No, I'm not." If I was interested in being a federal judge, I would have gone that way long ago.
The quote I'll leave with you is I would seriously consider it if they would move the capitol to Colorado Springs. That's all you're getting on that.
What are your priorities with this current legislative session in terms of the Regional Tourism Act and hospital provider fee?
I gotta tell you, I've looked my Republican friends in the eye and I say, "Explain to me why the hospital provider fee ... producing an incredible amount of revenue without a tax increase, why is that off the table?" They [say], "The problem was created by Colorado not opting out of Medicaid expansion. The governor got us in this mess." I'm told there's not the votes to do it.
RTA, yes, the aviation museum has hired a lobbyist to push for language, and apparently, we're not the only city to be interested in this, in allowing, even after an application has been approved [for state sales tax rebates], going back to the Economic Development Commission and asking for an amendment. It would have to happen this year or it's a nonstarter. [The RTA must be amended for the city to substitute the aviation museum for a downtown stadium included in the 2013 proposal.]
The other thing I'll express my concern about is highway funding. The highway expansion between here and Denver is huge for economic development purposes. That logjam is counterproductive. The combination of TABOR and Gallagher [amendment] have rendered property tax as not a major source of revenue for cities. Today, only 8 percent of revenue for the city of Colorado Springs comes from property tax. That has resulted in us being very, very dependent on sales tax, and our sales tax is now 8.25 [including all other agencies, including the county]. The Legislature apparently is looking at possibly funding highways with a sales tax. And so what if they come and want a half or three quarters or 1 percent increase. I think that would be problematic for Colorado Springs. I and other mayors are saying to the state, "You have a gas tax, severance tax, income tax. Why a sales tax?" and they'll say sales tax polls the best.
If it goes, and the state votes it in, probably what they'll do is have a component coming back to local governments, and I guess what we would do is amend 2C [local road tax] to lower the amount, because we have state revenue for local roads.
What about the proposed increase in the city's Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax?
I honestly do think we need to raise LART at some point. The idea is to convince the voters they don't pay for it — 99 percent of LART is paid by tourists. We have only a 2 percent tax. A lot of cities are up to 10 percent or higher.
I would hope to raise it at some point when the timing is right, and it would have to be [spent on] things that promote tourism. You're never going to see an art and cultural tax in Colorado Springs. But LART is a decent way to pay for that.
It's all a matter of priority. Obviously, the parks folks want more money. I don't want to be facetious, but the fact of the matter is nobody is suing us because we're not maintaining the parks, or because we don't have enough LART tax. We are being sued because we're not living up to our [stormwater discharge] permit.
If you have a park tax proposal in November, you get a state transportation tax and a LART tax, I think they all go down.
What interest do you have in having the city make a mark in sustainability?
I'd love to go LED in all our streetlights, but in our negotiation with Utilities, it's not cost-effective. I don't understand that. We've got to get to the point where it's cost-effective. We're a huge customer of Utilities, so I have some optimism there.
We went with a platinum [sustainability rating] fire station. It was so fricking cold we had to redo the HVAC system. We're looking at the new Sand Creek [police] substation. We're looking at what it costs to be platinum, silver, bronze, and some of it is pretty outrageous. Another thing is, we've got to stay on top of Smart Cities stuff. Right now, Utilities owns the street poles. I'm telling you it's pretty clear the street pole is going to be a traffic detector, camera, shots-fired detector — it's gonna be this amazing thing, and that's not too far off.