- Pam Zubeck
- Children’s Hospital, under construction, received a $150,000 donation.
That’s an average of $6 for each of the 152,686 permits issued from Jan. 1, 2016, to Oct. 18, 2017.
That generosity was made possible by the July 28, 2016, hailstorm that resulted in more than 50,000 permits being issued for repairs and roofing jobs, along with a rebounding economy sparking a flurry of construction. The Regional Building Department (RBD) August report, the most recent available, showed valuation of permits issued in July 2017 totaled $413.8 million, or 86 percent more than the prior year, while the $1.9 billion year-to-date figure represented a 23 percent increase over the same period in 2016.
El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller, one of three members of the Regional Building Commission, says donations to nonprofits are a good way to spend RBD’s extra funds.
“They’re doing good work for our community,” he says of those receiving the money. “I don’t think that’s inappropriate in any way. I think to the degree that organizations can have the ability to do more good, they should.”
But Colorado Springs City Councilor Tom Strand, who joined the board in May, is more circumspect. “How did we get so involved with charitable kinds of things?” Strand says. “I’m going to look into it, I promise you that. There shouldn’t be any extra [revenue for donations]. I’d like to take a hard look at that immediately.”
Likewise, former building commissioners say RBD’s bank account was never intended to serve as a piggy bank for nonprofits. In fact, RBD’s 2004 intergovernmental agreement with six cities and towns and the county backs up that contention by specifying how much in extra cash RBD can keep on hand, and RBD’s current balance has far surpassed the maximum.
“The Regional Building Department wasn’t designed as a charitable outfit,” says former County Commissioner Jim Bensberg, an RBD commissioner from 2005 to 2010. “We never gave out any cash donations.”
Moreover, the RBD’s lack of any policy to guide application and selection processes led former Colorado Springs City Councilor Randy Purvis, a lawyer, to say, “If there’s no structure, it’s ripe for abuse.”
While there’s no evidence of abuse, after the Independent inquired about the donations, RBD officials said they’ll consider adopting a formal policy, while Waller says he’s interested in discussing going a step further and using the $3.1 million from RBD’s recent sale of downtown property as an endowment for future giving.
RBD’s mission, according to its website, is to “safeguard life and limb, health, property and public welfare” through regulation of building codes, plan review, inspections and licensing procedures. Via intergovernmental agreements, RBD acts on behalf of Colorado Springs, Fountain, Manitou Springs, Green Mountain Falls, Monument, Palmer Lake and the county.
RBD’s three-member governing body is composed of elected officials from the county, Colorado Springs and one of the smaller cities or towns. The Advisory Board is a larger group made up of representatives from each IGA partner, as well as appointees made by Colorado Springs and the county.
Neither the website nor the IGA mention donations. The IGA states, “It is the intention that the Department shall be self supporting, but not profit-making, and to that end, such fees shall be established and from time to time reestablished as herein set forth as the need shall become apparent to the Commission.”
In other words, if revenues surge above the amount needed to run the agency, with a comfortable cushion, fees are to be lowered. The IGA defines that cushion as a cash balance that is “no less than 25 percent, nor more than 50 percent of the annual budget.”
Due to the July 2016 hail storm and other major projects, such as Children’s Hospital, the cash balance as of October 20 was 63 percent of the 2017 budget.
When the $3.1 million from RBD’s sale of downtown property to Nor’wood Development Group, which is developing the Olympic Museum area, is added, the cash balance reaches 83 percent of budget.
To offset rising revenues, the Building Commission cut fees on value-based permits, such as building permits, by 20 percent on April 1. So far, that maneuver has led to a reduction in fee collection of more than $800,000.
Some of the excess cash already collected, however, has been funneled into donations. In the last two years, RBD has given away $912,830, according to records and an accounting provided by Regional Building Official Roger Lovell. The largest amount, $200,000, went to the Springs Rescue Mission’s $6.4 million construction program to expand facilities at its 5 W. Las Vegas St. campus.
Terry Anderson, with the Rescue Mission, and Aimee Cox, who used to head the city’s efforts on homelessness but is now CEO of Community Health Partnership, sought the donation. Cox served on the Manitou Springs City Council some years ago, during which time she was a member of RBD’s Advisory Board. “So I was aware that they did make grants,” Cox tells the Indy. “I’ve worked with government for a long time, so I tend to be aware of where funding is available.”
Other donations included $150,000 to Children’s Hospital, unanimously approved in August and sought by Greg Raymond, Children’s regional vice president. A Children’s spokesperson said the donation resulted from the hospital’s inquiry about a possible fee adjustment.
“The need for Children’s Hospital and understanding what that was going to bring to our community — I think that was fairly a no-brainer for us,” Waller says.
Lovell notes that Children’s Hospital’s fees to RBD total $287,000, but many of the inspections will be conducted by Children’s contractors, making RBD’s job easier. He adds the project is “a distinct benefit to our community,” and will “bring other economic development.”
- Courtesy Roger Lovell
- Roger Lovell
In addition, county Director of Community Services Tim Wolken tells the Indy via email that RBD has funded forest management in county parks, and has contributed to the county fair and the Veteran of the Year program. He didn’t provide dollar figures.
- $125,000 for a senior reroofing program, in which RBD partners with the industry to provide new roofs for the elderly.
- $150,000 for a workforce program in which several school districts offer building trades training, such as plumbing, electrical, roofing and building. “The goal and intent there is to open those kids’ eyes to let them know college is great, but college isn’t necessarily the only direction,” Lovell says.
- $70,000 to the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC.
- $61,520 to help fund a mechanical training program run by the Pikes Peak Mechanical Contractors Association. The program stemmed from concerns over carbon monoxide poisoning.
- $30,310 to the county’s Department of Human Services to equip staff who make home visits with carbon monoxide detectors.
- $16,600 to the Council of Neighbors and Organizations to fund neighborhood cleanups.
- $9,400 to the John Zay House, which houses people out-of-towners and their families who are treated at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services.
In the past, RBD has given to other causes as well, according to County Administrator Henry Yankowski, Regional Building official from 2006 to mid-2015, who said gifts were “for the good of all.”
In 2013, for example, RBD gave $200,000 to the county to cover uninsured losses from the Black Forest Fire, he says. Another $400,000 over a two-year period funded a work program that provided fire mitigation, and RBD paid $50,000 for a chipper for use by the Colorado Springs Fire Department.
Yankowski says RBD also gave $10,000 to the Fountain Police Department for a ballistic blanket, which protects officers in shooter situations. It also spent $60,000 for a solar array at the Hillside Community Center.
“This is my opinion on it,” Yankowski says. “Say we have a big hail storm and we end up with too much money. I have a choice to reduce the fees for the following year. So what I decided to do instead, with agreement of the [RBD] commission, is we would make some donations for the good of all, so everyone had an opportunity to benefit from what we did.”
Yankowski also notes that a fee reduction doesn’t benefit those who caused the revenue to soar.
While charitable giving can be viewed as an essential part of corporate life, local elected officials have been skeptical of allowing local public agencies to give.
In 2013, for example, a divided Colorado Springs City Council wiped out $664,000 in funding for nonprofits from the Colorado Springs Utilities budget.
As Councilor Andy Pico said at the time, “I’ve been very concerned about how this community investment fund has been handled. We’re spending other people’s money and being generous with it, and that’s inappropriate.”
Strand now says the Utilities Board, comprised of Council, is considering re-establishing a smaller Utilities charitable fund in 2018.
Reached by phone last week, Pico was surprised at RBD’s donations. “It strikes me as questionable,” he says in an interview. Asked about Yankowski’s “good of all” philosophy, Pico says, “That’s how you go down a pretty slippery slope.”
Bensberg, equally surprised at the donations, acknowledged that during his tenure on the Building Commission, the board approved a $150,000 abatement of fees for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s headquarters and Training Center construction projects in 2009 and 2010. But the fees totaled only about $100,000, and no cash changed hands, he says.
Former Vice Mayor Larry Small, who served on the commission from 2003 to 2011, says he sees a “nexus” between RBD and the senior reroofing program, but thinks RBD should simply reduce fees to eat up excess revenue. Moreover, he adds, if an agency is going to hand out money, “You should have a policy — what kind of organization can receive the funds, what application process has to be followed, what committee has to sit down and see if they are fairly and reasonably distributed. You can’t have a program like that without a policy.”
Jim Mullen, former Colorado Springs city manager, agrees. “It’s public money and they’re public servants making decisions about how those funds are used,” he says, “so it should be a very open process, one that is very transparent that everyone knows about so they can get in line.”
Mullen says he’d expect the building industry to raise concerns, but Renee Zentz, CEO of the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs, said via email the HBA supports RBD’s largesse. “While I/we am not aware of all contributions made to our community, the ones I do know about — to name a few — Springs Rescue, workforce development/Careers in Construction, Roofs for elderly, neighborhood clean-up, carbon monoxide for low income, fire alarms for low income — all appear to have a rational nexus, building a better community.”
Regardless, a policy is in the works, Lovell reports, which could be submitted to the board for discussion early next year. He notes that the board could choose to make the program more formal, conduct a fees study and reduce fees if warranted, or do nothing.
Waller tells the Indy RBD leadership is considering exploring the idea of setting up a foundation — “creating some sort of program whereby people would come and make asks of the Regional Building Department.”
Other members of the Building Commission who served in 2016 and 2017 — former Springs City Councilor Larry Bagley, former County Commissioner Dennis Hisey and Green Mountain Falls Mayor Pro Tem Tyler Stephens — couldn’t be reached for comment.