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The Indy's picks for the 2017 Coordinated Elections

Election endorsements

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here's been a lot of hot election news lately, but much of it is about the 2018 general election, more than a year away.

Ballots for the Nov. 7, 2017, Coordinated Election, meanwhile, will be mailed to the households of most registered voters starting Oct. 16. Odd-year elections are easily overshadowed. That Congressional District 5 race, in which incumbent Doug Lamborn is currently seeing five challengers? It's in 2018. The hotly contested race to replace term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper? 2018. The races for state legislative seats that candidates are already making announcements for? You got it. Not until next year.

Traditionally, odd-year elections don't just grab fewer headlines, they garner fewer votes. In 2016, for instance, 83.1 percent of registered voters in El Paso County cast a ballot. And that was actually low compared the 2012 presidential election when 91.93 percent of the county's registered voters participated. Compare that to 2015, when just 41.69 percent of registered voters in the county voted.

This year, some 448,755 registered voters will receive a mail ballot, and while it may be tempting to forget it in a stack of junk mail, there are plenty of reasons to vote. Odd-year elections are a big deal for school boards — the folks responsible for making the big decisions about how our future workforce is educated — including Colorado Springs School District 11, where voters will pick four of seven board members.

They're a big deal too for local issues, which often impact your day-to-day life more than state or national issues. This election will decide whether Colorado Springs gets a funding stream that could finally turn the ship around for its long-troubled stormwater system. Voters also will have a chance to weigh in on two measures that could mean the difference between widening the so-called "gap" on Interstate 25 in the next few years, or waiting far longer for a fix. There also will be a second chance to better fund struggling Colorado Springs School District 11 — an issue that failed a year ago, likely due in part to voter confusion.

And in Manitou Springs, voters will decide two local issues, select City Councilors (although those races all are uncontested) and pick a mayor (a race that is both contested and contentious).

There's plenty of big decisions to be made across the region, such as money for fire districts and other school board races. We can't dig into all those, so we're focusing here on the issues and races that we are most familiar with. But, wherever you live, and whatever your ballot looks like, we encourage you to vote. Though not the big races, as former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill said, "all politics is local."

Key ballot issues

At our city’s most severe erosion sites, it’s easy to see stormwater-control needs. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • At our city’s most severe erosion sites, it’s easy to see stormwater-control needs.

Colorado Springs 2A: In 2015, Mayor John Suthers demonstrated his ability to woo voters by successfully pushing for the passage of 2C, a five-year, 0.62 percent sales tax increase that aimed to raise a total of $50 million for high-priority road projects.

The effects of 2C can be seen citywide — cone zones dot the streets, annoying drivers but hopefully, paving the way for a future with fewer potholes and congestion. In many ways, 2A is part two of 2C. While 2C was for roads, 2A aims to fix the city's long-neglected stormwater system.

Politicians have been woefully ineffective at convincing voters to support stormwater measures in the past. For instance, despite years of public process, research and a finely crafted plan, a 2014 ballot question that asked voters for $40 million in fees to support a regional drainage authority failed at the polls. Surely, that defeat stung all the more because stormwater — always derided as the least sexy infrastructure issue — was about as sexy as it was ever going to get in 2014. Following the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, the region's inadequate and crumbling system had been unable to handle the disaster-related flash floods, meaning destruction was rampant and unusually visible to the ordinary citizen. In Manitou Springs, a house actually floated down a hill.

All of which is to say, it's more than a little ballsy for Suthers to try this again. But here's the thing: Colorado Springs desperately needs this money. There can be no argument that the city's stormwater system is a mess. The city is, after all, being taken to court by the Environmental Protection Agency because its system has been so inadequate that it's accused of violating the Clean Water Act. The stormwater system also very nearly cost Colorado Springs Utilities its deal on the Southern Delivery System water pipeline, because Pueblo accused the Springs of violating its intergovernmental agreement commitment to stormwater maintenance. Suthers has taken one step toward fixing this issue, pledging to Pueblo that the Springs will spend $23 million a year for 20 years on stormwater. The problem is, that commitment is eating into other urgent needs for the Springs, including the replacement of decrepit city vehicles and hiring police officers.

Here's a wake-up call: Big cities have stormwater fees. It's normal. Drainage may not be sexy, but it doesn't have to be. It's mandatory.

That said, we liked that 2014 drainage question better than we like this one. There are two ways to determine fees for stormwater. You can charge a fee based on impermeable surface (areas of land where water cannot sink into the ground, such as rooftops and driveways, that lead to runoff). That's the most fair way. The other system is a flat fee, and most of 2A, which would sunset after 20 years, is funded through this method. All households, big or small, will pay $5 a month under 2A, while commercial property owners will pay $30 an acre. Those with properties over five acres will have fees assessed by the stormwater manager based on impermeable surface. (There was some question as to whether the fees they are charged would be a public record, but Suthers assures us they will be.)

Suthers says the system was chosen for several reasons. First, the city once had a stormwater fee based on impermeable surface, and it proved a bureaucratic nightmare. Second, anecdotally, the proponents of the 2014 stormwater fee heard from voters that they found the system too confusing, and that was part of why they voted against it. And third, Suthers says early polling showed that voters valued simplicity.

Suthers says the system is intended not to overburden any one property owner. That's part of why there's a different system for large properties — the fees would otherwise be outrageous, and Suthers notes, charging large campuses by acre, regardless of open space, would be a disincentive to leaving some greenery.

The other eyebrow-raiser in 2A is that it leaves open the possibility that fees could be raised if required to comply with a court order (think the EPA case), to comply with permits or laws, or to meet the requirements of a previously adopted IGA (think the agreement with Pueblo). But Suthers, whose opinion on legal matters carries some weight given that he is the former state attorney general, says he thinks any bump in the fees would be far less than $1 a month.

One other thing: A lot of people rightly point out that part of the reason the city is in this mess is because it hasn't required the right stormwater infrastructure from developers. But Suthers notes that the city developed new guidelines in the last two years that should ease that problem moving forward. And, he says, those past problems can't all be blamed on corruption or lax oversight — our understanding of stormwater has evolved enormously over the past decades. So while a small concrete channel may have met standards in the 1980s, nowadays the focus is on retention and detention ponds.

To sum up, given the extent of the city's problem, and the relatively small ask, we're on board. Vote: YES

El Paso County 1A: If you've lived and voted in Colorado for a few years, then you are likely familiar with TABOR revenue retention ballot measures. Here's the deal: In 1992, Colorado voters approved the state constitutional amendment, the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. In all likelihood, most were attracted to the key promise of TABOR, the right to vote on any tax increase. But TABOR is far more complicated. It also limits government budgets from growing each year by more than the sum of inflation plus the percent change in population, which restricts the ability of governments to save for a rainy day or shift gears quickly to meet a new challenge.

What that means in practice is, that if a state or local government brings in more tax money than the limit permits — usually due to a good economy — the government must refund that money to taxpayers or ask them to keep it. Even if voters allow the government to keep the cash, the overage isn't computed into that year's budget, meaning the government's growth in the following year is penalized.

Example: Let's say that a government's TABOR limit only allowed it to keep $200 million in 2016. But it collected $210 million, so it asked voters to keep the $10 million, and voters agreed. Despite that, in 2017, "the base" budget of the government will still be $200 million. So if inflation is 1 percent and population growth is 3 percent, the budget is allowed to grow 4 percent, to $208 million. If the "base" had been reset to $210 million, however, the budget limit would be $218.4 million.

Most governments simply ask voters whether they can keep the extra dough they collected over the limit. El Paso County is making the big ask this time: It wants to keep $14.5 million in revenue collected over the TABOR limit in 2016 and it wants to use that extra money to reset its base, starting with the 2017 budget. Approving this question, in other words, would mean that the county would be able to collect and keep more tax revenue in all future years.

What this means for taxpayers is pretty simple: Property owners forgo a refund (about $40 for a typical home worth $250,000) this year, and forgo future refunds or reductions in taxes that might have resulted from TABOR's so-called ratchet-down effect on local budgets.

The county says it needs the money because the effects of TABOR and the Great Recession combined to depress its growth. It proposes spending up to $12 million for a local match for the Interstate 25 gap project (see more on that below) and other road projects, with the rest of the 2016 money going to disaster recovery projects and parks, trails and open space.

All of these are worthy goals, but the best part is that 1A makes progress on these key initiatives without raising taxes. Vote: YES

Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority 5B: In 2004, voters in Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, El Paso County and the town of Green Mountain Falls voted to establish the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, funded by a 1 cent sales tax. Of the money collected, 44 percent was a permanent tax, with 35 percent going to road maintenance and 10 percent going to the bus system. The other 55 percent of the tax, which cut off at the end of 2014, was to complete a list of road and bridge projects, with the highest-priority projects coming first.

Voters liked the system enough that in 2012, nearly 80 percent chose to renew the capital portion of the tax through 2024, with a new set of projects. That tax has collected more than was projected, leading to a "surplus" (see below). Supporters of 5B want voters to permit the PPRTA to spend up to $10 million of that "surplus," split over the next two years, to chip in the largest share of a local match to the state government for the widening of the 18-mile stretch of Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock, which could cost up to $600 million. Douglas County has already committed millions to dealing with current safety issues on the road, and El Paso County Commissioner and PPRTA Vice Chair Mark Waller notes that leaders are in talks with Lone Tree and Arapahoe County.

The rationale here is simple. "[The Colorado Department of Transportation] tells us if we can raise $25 to $30 million, they're confident they can break ground on this project some time in 2019," Waller says.

While it may not be fair — obviously I-25 isn't a local responsibility — Waller says CDOT has told him that without a local match, the project won't get off the ground anytime soon. Our local dollars would need to be spent on the two miles of the gap that are actually located in El Paso County, Waller says, but they can also be used as leverage to raise more money. As for why this money is coming from our region, when most of the gap is in Douglas County, Waller says El Paso County residents drive the gap more.

So, the reason "surplus" is in quotes above is that there really is no surplus. It's true that the PPRTA has raised more money than projected. But it's also true that there's a long list of projects on that capital list that still need to be completed. Over a period of 10 years, one can expect feast and famine when it comes to sales tax revenue — there's a good chance $10 million won't prove to have been a surplus at all.

Nevertheless, even in a region with so many needy roads, it's hard to imagine a more pressing problem for local drivers than I-25. The four-lane section of road has resulted in the deaths of two state troopers in the last few years, and CDOT notes, "There were 5,537 crashes on I-25 between C-470 and Colorado Springs from 2011 to 2015."

This isn't a perfect question, but paired with the dollars that the county's 1A question could bring in, this may mean getting the dangerous and infuriating I-25 gap fixed a whole lot faster, boosting the economy, saving lives, and making for a lot fewer "are we there yet?" hollers from the backseat — all without a tax increase. That's a bargain we're willing to take. Vote: YES

School District 11

Jim Mason - J. ADRIAN STANELY
  • J. Adrian Stanely
  • Jim Mason

School Board: Board President LuAnn Long is term-limited, Vice President Jim Mason is looking for a second four-year term, and appointed members Mary Coleman and Shawn Gullixson are facing their first election after taking over seats for board members who left mid term. That means four of seven seats on the board of the city's largest school district are up for grabs. One seat has been decided. Coleman, the manager of government affairs for Centura Health and a mover and shaker in the community, is running to complete the last two years of her predecessor's term. She has no challengers.

There are four candidates for three seats with four-year terms: Mason, Gullixson, community activist Julie Ott, and Morgan Chavez, who works at Progressive Insurance.

Let's start with Mason, 64, who holds two master's degrees, and spent 30 years in the Army, retiring as a colonel, before starting a second career as a defense contractor. We can't fit all of Mason's volunteer and board service in this article, but it includes the African-American Leadership Conference and the Urban Renewal Board.

Mason shared with us that he was given the name "James" as part of a family tradition of giving that strong name to boys who faced many challenges. Born to a 15-year-old mother and raised by his grandparents, Mason attended public schools and worked his way up. Unlike a lot of people who would credit only themselves for their success, Mason points to all those who supported him along the way, and particularly values the public education that gave him his start.

"I am working on your behalf because someone worked on my behalf," he says. "... It's nothing more than paying it forward."

Shawn Gullixson - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • Shawn Gullixson

Mason isn't just talk. He demonstrated a keen understanding of state and local funding sources; the need for arts, music and electives to keep kids interested in learning; and a balanced approach to standardized testing and charter schools. He does not support vouchers, saying it's a parent's responsibility to pay for private education, as he chose to do for his only child, now grown. He thinks pay-for-performance for teachers tends to breed distrust, and that principals should be trusted to know who their best teachers are. And he's a strong supporter of D-11's requested mill levy increase (see below). Honestly, we're hoping that Mason doesn't stop with the D-11 board. His talent, intellect and character would be an asset to a higher office as well.

After Mason, Gullixson, 37, is another obvious choice. He's already got some experience on the board, having been appointed in 2016, and he has the financial chops to offer something exceptional. A Mitchell High grad and single dad with two young kids in D-11, Gullixson is the vice president of Vectra Bank. Gullixson has always been involved in his children's schools and the programs they offer, which has familiarized him with a lot of D-11's programs, such as the personalized teaching style Next Generation Learning. He's also a great resource for D-11 schools that want to partner with businesses and often helps to set up those meetings, which can offer kids real world insights and skills.

Gullixson is willing to stick his neck out on key issues. At one point, he told us, "I don't believe we can measure a person's ability to prepare for life based on a test score." Gullixson stressed that one of his strengths, and an area where he's had training, is team-building. He believes he's great at building bridges between disparate groups of people. Add that to his financial background and it's hard to pass up the chance to give him another four years in office.

Julie Ott - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • Julie Ott

Finally, there are the two newbies: Ott, 50, and Chavez, 36. Both are moms of D-11 kids, and we genuinely liked them both. But Ott shines brighter here. She helped found the charter school, Academy for Advanced & Creative Learning, which is authorized by D-11, and spent six years on the board, three of them as president. An avid volunteer, she's also quite familiar with election processes due to her work with the League of Women Voters of the Pikes Peak Region.

Chavez doesn't have that experience — yet. But we encourage her to volunteer for one of D-11's other boards as preparation for a later run for the Board of Education. We greatly admire her dedication to showing her daughters what service looks like through her own actions.

Vote: Mason, Gullixson, Ott

D-11 3E: Over the past year, we've heard from D-11 board members, staff and the 3E "vote yes" group, Friends of D-11, that voters were confused by two D-11 issues on last year's ballot: a mill levy override and a bond issue.

This year's attempt to fund D-11 was made to be simple — it's a hike in property taxes, generating $42 million a year, and includes no debt. In fact, the plan is to pay off existing debt by around 2023, which would mean that 3E would go from costing the owner of a $200,000 house in D-11 approximately an extra $14 a month in 2018 to around an extra $6 a month in 2023.

"We're not asking for the moon," the Friends' Anthony Carlson says. "We're asking to be able to keep up."

D-11’s structural integrity needs to be shored up with a “yes” vote on 3E. - ELVETICA / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Elvetica / Shutterstock.com
  • D-11’s structural integrity needs to be shored up with a “yes” vote on 3E.

We can talk about why D-11 needs this money, but let's start by clearing the air on a few other points of confusion. First, the state's marijuana tax money, awarded through grants, favors small rural school districts, not big, urban ones like D-11. So no, D-11 isn't riding high on a mountain of marijuana cash and it never will.

Second, no, D-11 did not recently get an increase in funding. Our region is home to an unusual number of school districts, and most of them have received increases from their voters in recent times. But D-11 has not received a tax increase of any kind since 2000 — 17 years ago.

Third, no, the state is not going to take care of this. The state is underfunding K-12 schools if you consider the formula originally set out when voters approved Amendment 23 in 2000, which was supposed to ensure Colorado schools didn't end up as the worst-funded in the nation. We won't go into how the state legally maneuvered around the increases dictated in Amendment 23 in 2009, but let's just say this: If the amendment had continued to be implemented in the way voters intended, schools would have received billions more in funding since 2009. With other obligations, notably roads, to attend to, don't expect the state legislature to fix this problem in the next session.

In 2016 the D-11 property tax was just over 40 mills. If 3E is approved, D-11 taxpayers will pay 43 mills (a mill is $1 per $1,000 in assessed value), though that amount will fluctuate for the first few years. Now consider that Academy School District 20, which is home to much newer schools, paid over 60 mills in 2016. And D-11 doesn't just need more money to fix its buildings, it also has needier children. More than 60 percent of kids in the district qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch.

Now, here's a few things you should know: D-11 has an incredibly detailed plan to address its highest needs with this money, from crumbling schools, to outdated computers, to teacher pay that isn't competitive anymore. It's finance department has won awards.

There are a lot of reasons to approve this tax. It's reasonable and accountable. Its endorsers include nearly every mover and shaker in town, from both parties. Improving D-11 schools will mean an increase in property values, and will also likely better Colorado Springs' chances of attracting big businesses with better jobs. But here's the best reason: These are our kids. They shouldn't be deprived of a great education and a shot at a successful life just because they don't live in the wealthiest neighborhood in the city. Vote: YES

Manitou Springs

Mayor: Boy, is this a tough one. Incumbent Nicole Nicoletta, 43, and challenger Ken Jaray, 63, each have wonderful qualities — in fact, we found ourselves wishing we could somehow get the benefit from their combined expertise in this office. That said, they have no love lost for each other.

Ken Jaray - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • Ken Jaray

In fact, the central theme of Jaray's campaign is that he would be a community-minded mayor, who stresses public input and consensus. If that sounds like a backhanded slap at Nicoletta, that's because it is.

Jaray doesn't like the way Nicoletta handles her office in general, and in particular, he thinks she did a poor job handling two key issues: the removal of beloved trees on Cañon Avenue and the repair of Manitou's historic Brook Street Bridge. Nicoletta herself acknowledges that she could have and should have done more to communicate with the public ahead of these decisions, though she stands by her votes.

The trees were removed due to the desire to widen the sidewalk, utility line issues, and an arborist's report that they were diseased. But on the day they were removed, town people chained themselves to the trees and held a loud protest.

The bridge, on the other hand, was originally slated to be removed and replaced, but it was later decided that it would be repaired, after a Manitou Councilor, urged on by outraged neighbors, called for further investigation. Nicoletta says she was simply trying to get the bridge taken care of in a cost-effective manner that would produce a lasting fix. But Jaray argues the repair was better on both points.

Either way, the key word here is communication. And neither of these was a shining example of what great communication looks like.

Jaray insists that's an ongoing problem for Nicoletta, and after talking with several trusted Manitou leaders confidentially, we're inclined to believe him. Manitou has always been the kind of place that likes to decide things in a small-town way. Jaray says he'd take Manitou back to that, redesigning City Hall to be more welcoming and even bringing his wife's homemade food to Council meetings.

Nicole Nicoletta - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • Nicole Nicoletta

But there's another side to all this: Like it or not, Manitou isn't the tiny town it once was. It faces a lot of big-city issues now, from a large homeless population to extreme congestion to crumbling (and unusually pricey) infrastructure needs to marijuana policy and an affordable housing crunch. We're not convinced that all those issues can be solved in Manitou's traditional kumbaya way — even if it sure was a nice way to govern while it lasted.

The truth is, Manitou is going to have to find an in-between way. If Nicoletta wins, she must seriously reexamine her leadership style and find ways to be more inclusive and considerate of other views. A "get 'er done" style isn't effective if half the town dislikes you. If Jaray wins, he'll likely need to learn to make hard, unpopular decisions — because they will need to be made.

So let's talk about some of their other qualities. Jaray's resumé is fantastic. A retired attorney and mediator, he's lived in Manitou for nearly 40 years, where he's been extremely involved and made powerful friends. (Jaray's endorsements are the créme de la créme for a Manitou politician, including state Sen. Michael Merrifield, state Rep. Pete Lee and former Manitou Mayor Marc Snyder, famous for leading Manitou through the Waldo Canyon Fire and the resulting floods.) Jaray is a former Manitou city attorney and school board member, helped produce one of the city's master plans, and was involved in restoring Manitou mineral springs and its stretch of Fountain Creek. We don't have space to list all of Jaray's community work but let's just say this: It's epic.

Jaray is also an affable guy, and he has some good ideas, like charging a fee to hike the Incline to control crowds and support management and maintenance of the trail. We also liked his technology-mindedness, including an idea to put a sign on U.S. 24 telling people where parking is available. But overall, Jaray comes off as a one-issue candidate: He's all about the communication.

Nicoletta, on the other hand, has two master's degrees, a young daughter and stepdaughter, and she runs the Sunday market in Acacia Park and teaches classes in youth mental health. While she doesn't have those years of volunteer service that Jaray has, she did serve on Council before becoming mayor, and has stepped up to the plate since then, serving with the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, the Incline Management Oversight Committee and the Coordinating Council for the Coalition for Prevention, Addiction Education and Recovery (the opioid task force), among others.

But what really impressed us about Nicoletta wasn't what she has done; it's what she is doing. While Jaray would clearly need to play catch-up when he got into office, Nicoletta is fully informed and just hitting her stride after only two years in office. (Manitou has unusually short terms for its mayors.)

When we asked about infrastructure, Nicoletta was able to tell us about a program the city is using to identify its most vulnerable systems and fix them in the most cost-effective way. She discussed the city's water issues, including the need to repair water tanks, with ease and authority. And she pointed to the decorative fencing she championed for the city's Soda Springs Park pavilion, which had been attracting an unsavory crowd for years, and scaring off tourists. The fence, she noted, has been complimented even by those who originally wanted no change to the historic structure.

Nicoletta owned up to the unpopular decision (at least in Colorado Springs) to severely limit parking near Barr Trail, and noted with satisfaction that she no longer gets calls from residents on Ruxton Avenue annoyed about their parking situation.

She had thoughtful answers about parking in general, discussing two possible lots, and talked about ways to incorporate community farms to beautify those areas and produce food. She told us how she was excited to be working with school kids on a plan to possibly create a community center. And she had other very "Manitou" ideas for the future, such as a composting program and creating a day care center in the city's east side urban renewal area staffed by seniors who could live in mixed-use complexes envisioned for the area.

Nicoletta has been accused of being too deferential to the city staff's opinions on projects, and Jaray points out that a study has shown that the staff also has a disconnect with the community that needs mending. But if Nicoletta, who wants to improve staff pay to get closer to market rate, is too admiring of the staff, Jaray couldn't come up with one nice thing to say about the people who keep the city running day to day. He could have at least given the staff props for the remarkable numbers of grants they've been awarded and managed on behalf of Manitou.

In conclusion, though we liked both of these candidates and think the city would benefit from the leadership of either one, we think Nicoletta has earned another two years. And hey, if she doesn't learn from the mistakes of her first term, voters will only have to wait two short years to show her the door. Vote: Nicoletta

Manitou Springs 2B: 2B would increase property taxes by up to $400,000 annually to pay $3.9 million (but with repayment costs up to $7 million) to build an emergency operations center for city government/training center for police and fire departments. Vote: YES

Manitou Springs 2C: 2C simply gives the city the right to provide high-speed internet services or contract with a private provider. This is an important question now, because infrastructure can be included in current road projects with no disruption and little cost. This likely would allow the city to bring cheaper, better service to residents in the future. Vote: YES


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