Should Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock be widened? Voters will weigh in on that question, too, via two separate ballot measures. If all are approved, voters would authorize various governments to levy hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and taxes for years to come.
But what if voters say no? What’s the fall-back plan? Have the four governments asking for money even thought about an alternative? We took a look at what would happen if these four ballot issues fail on Nov. 7.
- Guaxinim / Shutterstok.com
- Two ballot issues would allot cash to widening Interstate 25.
3E: Colorado Springs School District 11 mill levy overrideIn November, voters in District 11, the city’s central school district, will be asked to approve a mill levy override to generate $42 million in new tax revenue. The cash-strapped district, where over 60 percent of the 27,000 students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, hasn’t raised local property taxes since 2000. This plateau in revenue was exacerbated by a legislatively induced lag in state funding over that time. Thus, the district hasn’t kept up with much-needed improvements like upgrades to its 50-year-old buildings, new technology so students are workforce read, and pay raises to recruit and retain teachers and other staff. Ballot measures for a mill levy override and bond issue both failed last November, so this time, the district is just trying for the straight property tax increase. For a home with an assessed value of $200,000, the tax increase would amount to about $14 a month in the first year, dropping to around $6 in 2023 when the district aims to pay off outstanding debt.
Now, what if this one fails? Well, none of those improvements would happen. That means classrooms in Coronado High School would still be a hundred degrees without air conditioning in the summer, the broken elevator at North Middle School would stay that way and the potholes in the parking lot of Jenkins Middle School would just get deeper and wider. (For a full list of top priority projects, broken down by school, see friendsofd11.org/plan.) And, with a 3,000-teacher shortage statewide and no funds for pay raises or new hires, the district’s recruitment and retention challenge would just get steeper. In 2016, according to the district, 11 percent of teachers left.
Falling even further behind on these needs would just make the need greater — and more expensive, as buildings crumble and construction costs continue to rise. Without local investment, D-11’s Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson says that “because there’s [school] choice, at some point, as your facilities deteriorate and staff turns over more, families just will go somewhere else.” And that has a spiraling effect, since the students able to choice out are the ones whose parents are able to drive them to school in the mornings, leaving fewer, but poorer, students in a district that’ll receive less per pupil state funding. Given that surrounding districts have raised taxes to make these improvements already, Gustafson predicts that without this mill levy override, we’ll see a citywide dynamic of “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.”
Even though Anthony Carlson with Friends of D11, which is leading the “Yes on 3E” campaign, doesn’t like to think about losing, he imagines if that were to happen, “there would have to be another campaign. It’s not an issue that’s going away; it’s just going to be exacerbated.”
2A: Colorado Springs stormwater feesThe city’s measure proposes a 20-year fee of $5 per month for households and $30 an acre per month for commercial properties. Large property owners would be charged based on impermeable surface. Fees would generate $17 million a year to start, money that wouldn’t be subject to caps imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), which limits revenue growth for governments. The fee plan would become effective July 1, 2018.
The money is needed, Mayor John Suthers argues, because that sum now comes from the tax-supported general fund to fulfill a 20-year intergovernmental agreement with Pueblo County approved in April 2016 to manage stormwater flows. In addition, the federal government has sued the city alleging violations of the Clean Water Act due to neglect of the city’s stormwater system.
Suthers says if voters reject the measure, police response times will only get slower, the city’s vehicle fleet will get older and parks maintenance will erode further. “Nobody’s suing us for not having enough cops on the street,” he says. “They’re suing us for stormwater, and we’re going to have to deal with that.”
But Suthers is cool to mounting a repeat of measure 2A, because, as he says in an interview, “I don’t know how it gets any better. At this point in time, the citizen confidence in the city leadership is pretty high by historical standards. The amount of people who seem to understand the issue is much higher than it was a couple years ago. I guess if things just keep deteriorating, maybe there’s more citizen pressure. But the numbers were a lot better than they were a couple years ago, and I really think this is the time to solve it.”
City Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler would support another try, though not via a special election and not before more stakeholder input is gathered. “From my perspective, I think we have to figure a way to go back to the voters with a way they can support,” she says. “We are the only large city in the country that doesn’t have some type of fee [for stormwater].”
Gaebler would support a rigorous “conversation with voters” to find a funding mechanism they could support. While public safety — police and fire — always top voters’ list of priorities, Gaebler notes, “I would argue that infrastructure is a part of public safety, a health and welfare issue.”
Meantime, the city will continue to pull stormwater money from the general fund, she says, to satisfy its obligation to Pueblo County. As for making ends meet, Gaebler wants to rethink job duties of police and firefighters to determine if some functions could be performed by less-expensive civilian employees rather than sworn personnel. “We have to be more thoughtful,” she says.
Councilor Andy Pico, who voted against referring the stormwater measure to voters, says via email he doesn’t need a Plan B. “The proposed budget is what we will move forward on,” he says, referring to Suthers’ 2018 budget proposal, which doesn’t include stormwater fees and would be amended if voters approve 2A.
“Looking forward,” Pico adds, “the city will add PD [police] and FD [fire] as the economy grows within the TABOR cap.”
1A: El Paso County retention measureThe county wants to reestablish its TABOR revenue cap based on 2016 revenues, which exceeded the limit by $14.5 million. The measure, called 1A on the ballot, would allow the county to keep that $14.5 million and reset the county’s base budget to include that $14.5 million, allowing the county budget to grow more in future years.
The measure promises to spend up to $12 million on roads, including providing a local share for widening Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock. The rest of the money would go to disaster recovery projects and parks, trails and open space.
County Commissioner Mark Waller admits the idea of the measure failing hasn’t been analyzed. “We’ve had zero discussion about what we would do if it doesn’t pass,” he says. Waller says he doubts the county would take another run at the ballot in a future election and would simply cut spending to comply with TABOR’s limits.
“I would hope that we do our job well enough that a lot of those cuts become transparent to the people we serve,” Waller says. “And by the way, I-25 [widening] doesn’t happen. There just isn’t another option for I-25. Everybody’s telling us — the state, the feds — you’ve got to come to this [project] with local money, and if you don’t, you’re not going to make the [funding] list.”
Waller says the Colorado Department of Transportation says $25 million has to come from local governments toward a project that would cost $300 million to $600 million.
Opponents of the measure note in the TABOR notice that the county might not need to cut much, considering its budget is 33 percent higher today than it was in 2010, or more than $80 million more.
5B: Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority project fundingWhile the county’s question gives some funding to what’s known as “the gap” — the bottleneck of Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock — 5B is solely about fixing that traffic nightmare. If you’ve driven it, you know that’s where the state’s central corridor shrinks down to two lanes each way, congested enough to make the 17 miles go by much, much slower than they should. And with Colorado’s population projected to grow by 3 million over the next two decades, more and more cars are going to be on the road.
There’s a willingness among transportation officials, lawmakers and the general public to widen the gap. During the past legislative session, state legislators considered a proposal to borrow $3.5 billion for statewide infrastructure projects, including the gap, to be paid back by a hike to the state sales tax, but that didn’t go anywhere. Talk about raising the gas tax or getting some slice of the trillion dollars President Donald Trump promised for infrastructure didn’t go anywhere either. So, a coalition of local and state leaders keen on widening as soon as possible is looking to El Paso County to commit local dollars to the project in hopes that’ll help secure matching grants and encourage other local investment so construction can begin in 2019.
Ballot Issue 5B doesn’t ask El Paso County voters to raise taxes. Once more, for emphasis: This is not a tax increase. Rather, it just asks for permission to add the widening to the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (PPRTA)’s list of capital improvement projects that voters approved back in 2012. If 5B passes, PPRTA could spend up to $10 million in excess revenue generated by its portion of sales tax on widening the two-mile stretch of the gap that lies within El Paso County.
If it fails, the status quo continues for I-25 and that money gets spent on already-approved projects. So, there’ll be more crashes in the gap — there were over 940 in 2014 and 2015, CDOT reports. There’ll be more congestion — Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce estimates Coloradans waste about $6.8 billion a year in gas and productivity sitting in traffic. And, of course, there will be more angst — the vote “yes” committee is tellingly called “I-25 Shouldn’t Be a Parking Lot.”
El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller, who’s vice chair of the PPRTA board of directors, says simply “if we don’t get funding here, either we go look for it elsewhere or the project doesn’t happen.” Since Douglas County has already spent millions on safety measures in the gap, a “yes” on 5B could show state and federal transportation officials that the southern part of the Front Range is serious about making the project happen. “That’s just the way it happens now,” Waller says. “Projects don’t get completed unless local jurisdictions come to the table with local dollars.” Waller adds that federal transportation officials told him that just last week in Washington, D.C.
Economic development is on the line too. “Any business that potentially wants to relocate here wants to know we have safe, reliable transport,” Waller says. “So this is about showing we’re committed to making that happen.”
(Disclosure: Indy’s owner John Weiss is a board member for Together for Colorado Springs, which has endorsed the 2A and 3E.)