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SCIP failure may spawn layoffs, spiral city fees

Thinking outside the box recommended



A thoroughly chastened Colorado Springs City Council and city manager Jim Mullen are sifting through the rubble of last week's resounding defeat of the SCIP 01 program that would have funded a grab bag of 107 public improvement projects at a cost of $787 million.

Voters rejected the city's SCIP proposal 57 to 43 percent last week. Now, the council faces some difficult decisions about how to increase revenues and implement deep budget cuts and reductions in non-emergency services as ways to fund the most pressing of the city's $1 billion backlog of long-ignored public improvement needs.

On Monday, Mullen warned that the city may have to lay off 100 to 125 full-time city employees, terminate the city's bus system, end all new park construction and cut funding to the symphony orchestra. The city, Mullen said, may face the possibility of a 35-percent reduction in the city's non-public safety expenses and a 20-percent cutback in the city's non- public safety operations.

The manager told Council that the city's most pressing need is to find $19.8 million to pay for an additional 100 police and fire-fighting personnel in order to maintain emergency services at present levels.

Punishing the people

Colorado Springs voters nixed the .9 percent increase in sales tax that would have funded SCIP 01, but Mullen outlined 11 potential new fees and fee increases that, if adopted by Council, will deliver a stiff whack to the pocketbooks of those very voters.

Those options would include a 20 percent increase in city user fees, a 25 percent increase in the fines for traffic violations and a 100 percent increase in parking ticket fines. In addition, Mullen suggested a $10 increase in vehicle registration fees, a 20 percent rise in parking meter and parking garage rates, and a new fee system for domestic and commercial stormwater drainage.

Mullen also discussed the possibility of a restructured version of SCIP 01 for the November ballot, and two ballot scenarios that would entail versions of a $220 million bond issue coupled with increased sales and property taxes.

"Our SCIP needs still exist, and there's nothing in the existing budget to pay for them," Mullen observed. "We're going to have to look at some combination of revenue enhancements and budget cuts." He emphasized that Monday's discussion involved "a variety of options, ideas, concepts and approaches, not official recommendations."

Councilman Jim Null responded by noting that "We can't provide services if the people won't pay for them. We have some tough decisions coming up. Is it better to close Pioneers Museum or to eliminate the Forestry Department? Is it better to do away with bus service or to close the Rockledge Ranch, Starsmore and Beidleman Centers?"

Think about it tomorrow

Longtime city hall activist Walter Lawson was peeved by Mullen's presentation and Council's response.

"They're still missing the point," Lawson said during a break in Monday's meeting. "The voters aren't to blame for this mess. We're going to have an ongoing infrastructure debacle until council loses its Scarlett O'Hara style of management -- defer decisions until the problems are too massive to ignore and then ask taxpayers to save them."

Lawson joins Jann Nance and Jan Doran of the Council of Neighborhood Organizations in arguing that the only way to remedy the infrastructure backlog is to start imposing realistic impact fees and excise taxes on all new development.

"The city should not approve a building permit unless the developer has a mechanism in place to pay the true cost of drainage and offsite infrastructure impacts," Lawson said. "If we don't start doing that, we'll see a never- ending series of SCIP proposals, bond issues and property and sales tax increases wherein private citizens pay infrastructure costs in lieu of developers who profit from the projects.

"The reason we have SCIP at all," Lawson said, "is that development doesn't have to pay its way. Infrastructure costs like the $236 million backlog in drainage needs are being deferred to you and me in a never-ending series of SCIPs."

Spanking from the public

Councilman Ted Eastburn made a similar argument at Monday's meeting.

"This conversation about alternative funding sources should have taken place a long time before we structured the SCIP initiative," he said. "I begged for this conversation, but Council didn't want to hold it. It's too bad that it took a spanking from the public to make it happen.

"In a way, the defeat of SCIP 01 is a blessing," Eastburn continued. "It's forcing creative and intense public discourse on funding issues that are complicated, contentious and politically difficult. It's a lot easier to put a tax on the ballot than it is to do complex, politically-risky fiscal analysis or require development to pay its way."

Instead of impact fees and excise taxes, however, Eastburn favors what he terms "exactments."

"If a development creates need for a new firehouse," he explained, "it makes sense to exact it from the developer. Require him to build the firehouse to city specifications and equip it with fire trucks and equipment, but require taxpayers to bear the staffing and operational costs.

"The same with parks," he continued. "Developers have to dedicate park land, but that's nothing more than vacant property. Why not require the developer to turf and landscape the property and build the ball fields instead of requiring him to give the city money to put out bids and have it built?

"I'm pleased we're finally having this conversation," he said. "It suggests a shift in the policy wind. It's going to be complicated and grueling, but at least we're finally getting down to the innovative, outside-the-box dialogue that leads to policies that don't rely on taxpayer bailouts. There are lots of alternatives, fee-based systems and cooperative possibilities we've yet to explore."

Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace indicated that she too is interested in exploring the possibilities. "We're going to have to have to look at a variety of variables, grapple with a lot of unforeseen consequences, do some short-term, middle-term and long-term prioritizing and make some tradeoffs," she said,

"What would Colorado Springs be like without the Pioneers Museum or the Fine Arts Center? What do we want this city to be?"

The Council will continue its discussion next month, after the newly-elected members are sworn in.

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