The highest profile item on this year's ballot in Colorado Springs is Issue 2C. The mayor and city council are proposing a .62% increase in the sales tax to help pay for road repairs. Opponents of the tax say there's enough money already in the city's budget.
The proposed tax increase is estimated to add $50 million dollars a year, in each of the next five years, to the road repair fund. And, according to Councilwoman Jill Gaebler, the extra money is needed because the city has fallen behind. She says part of the problem is a lack of funding and part is the city's growth.
"We are one of the largest cities in the country, geographically," says Gaebler. "We're almost 200 square miles. We have over 6000 lanes of roads and we don't have enough density or population that are paying taxes to maintain a city of that size."
There's little argument over whether the roads are in bad shape. Residents cited roadwork as their top priority in a recent poll conducted by the city. One question included roadwork, public safety and the local economy as options. Respondents chose roadwork first. And in the comment section, where residents could offer any priority, roads came first again.
"In hosting other businesses, hosting prospects who have considered coming to Colorado Springs, we've actually had to select routes that we use to drive them around the city, to bring them in from the airport, so that we put our best face on," says Dirk Draper, head of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, which supports the sales tax increase.
But not everyone thinks measure 2C is the right way to pay for those repairs.
"Before the mayor was elected, he was campaigning that we needed a tax increase," says radio host and conservative activist Jeff Crank.
Crank holds up a report by an outside accountant as evidence that the money can be found in the budget. He says it's research Mayor Suthers and city council should have done before calling for the increase.
"I do think it's a little bit of a bait-and-switch," add Crank. "We asked voters to pass storm water, they said NO."
Crank is referring to a measure on last year's ballot to create a new fee that would pay for stormwater projects in Colorado Springs and other parts of El Paso County. The mayor is proposing $19 million for those projects in next year's budget instead.
"I think, in the minds of voters, the number one issue is roads. Let's apply money in the budget to roads and the mayor, who's a friend of mine, I like the mayor, I just think he's wrong on this issue."
Crank and the independent accountant's report that he cites also say the city could increase the amount of money it collects from Colorado Springs Utilities. They claim it could be done without increasing rates. They also point to other city enterprises – parking garages, the golf course and airport – as sources of additional revenue.
Mayor John Suthers says that's not even possible.
"There's some history here. The voters several years ago passed Issue 300, which specifically said, 'you cannot set fees for the use of enterprises that are more than what it costs to operate the enterprise.' In other words, you can't use them for fundraising for otherwise essential government functions."
The other option would be to privatize some or all of them, putting the properties on the tax rolls. That would require a public vote.
"Trust me, if people thought the voters were inclined to do that, they would have tried to do that long ago," says Suthers.
Opponents of the measure have also questioned whether the city is being upfront about how the money will be used.
A radio ad from city councilwoman Helen Collins, an opponent of measure 2C and the lone vote against putting it on the ballot, says the money will be used for the downtown arena, without voter approval. Collins' claim about the use of the funds came under immediate attack.
The measure establishes a fund specifically for roadwork and Suthers says that's where it's going to go.
"This is arguments by people that are opposed to this tax, trying to get people fearful that somehow it's not going to go to what it's meant for," says Suthers. "Every dime will be spent on road repairs and improvements."
Suthers and the measure's supporters say they are confident that it will pass on November 3rd.
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