City Council Candidates Debate Parks, Drake Power Plant, and Renewable Energy

There are 11 candidates vying for three open at-large positions on the Colorado Springs City Council. Earlier this month, all shared a stage at Colorado College in a debate focusing on trails, parks and open spaces, as well as renewable energy. 

From the beginning, the discussion of trails, parks, and open spaces centered largely around how to fund these types of public assets.

Several candidates mentioned an increase to the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax (LART) as a possible source of revenue. The tax, which supports special events in the city, applies mostly to hotels and car rental agencies and is seen largely as a tax on tourists.

Former Secretary of State Wayne Williams, also a former El Paso County Commissioner, began the debate by characterizing Colorado Springs’s LART as too low and advocating for expanding its use.

“When my friends who are tourists come to town, I take them first to a city park: Garden of the Gods. And yet the LART ... doesn’t provide any funding for this major tourist attraction,” he said.

Regina English, who runs a youth mentorship non-profit, responded to Williams.

“People will invest in the things that they want,” she said. “So I agree with the increase for parks.”

Randy Tuck, who has worked in the construction and medicinal marijuana industries, suggested a different source of revenue for public outdoor spaces: potential tax dollars from legalizing recreational marijuana sales, which city council has previously voted to prohibit.

“We’re passing up $25.4 million every year,” Tuck said.

The biggest difference in the debate’s first half arose when Athena Roe, who directs a non-profit advocating for abused seniors and dependent adults, suggested implementing $4 user fees at parks and trailheads.

“We pay to go work out at the YMCA, people pay to use amusement parks,” Roe said. “I don’t think that we need to increase taxes.”

Tom Strand, a former treasurer of TOSC and current incumbent at-large city councilor, offered a rebuttal, suggesting that some types of residents would be disproportionately affected by a user fee policy.

“I know a lot of people in our community are tax averse, but I think we need to look at [supplying tax revenue to] facilities that take care of our children, that take care of our less-wealthy people who are outside,” he said.

Former El Paso County Planning Commissioner Tony Gioia was also against user fees for public outdoor spaces. He referenced a decrease in funding for trails, parks, and open spaces during the 2008 economic recession. A renewed increase in funding, he said, is needed to account for the population growth that the city has experienced since then.

“You see overcrowding, you see maintenance being neglected at our trails and open spaces. We need to get that funding back up,” Gioia said.

Only one question drew mention of the city’s controversial bike lanes. Gordon Klingenschmitt, a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives, was asked about a citywide plan to support more walking and biking. Klingenschmitt, who prided himself on his conservative reputation, characterized the city as too quick to tax in order to achieve these types of goals.

“As you may know, our city voters just voted for a tax hike,” he said. “A lot of people said that was going to go for the roads to fix potholes. But instead we now face traffic jams, honestly, behind miles of empty bicycle lanes.”

In the second part of the debate, candidates were asked questions about the Martin Drake Power Plant and renewable energy.

The coal-fired plant provides about a quarter of Colorado Springs’ power year-round and Utilities has faced public pressure to close it. The Colorado Springs Utilities Board, which consists of all city councilors, voted in 2015 to decommission the power plant no later than 2035.

“We got [Colorado Springs Utilities] to agree to 2035. Now we can drive it down into the 2020s,” said incumbent councilman Bill Murray.

Strand and Williams also spoke in favor of shutting down Martin Drake earlier than 2035.

Terry Martinez, a former elementary school principal, said he has lived in the shadow of Drake power plant.

“Bottom line,” Martinez said, “we need to move aggressively away from fossil fuels.”

“I don’t know if we need to be that aggressive,” Roe responded. “The CEO of the public utilities laid out this incredible plan that I think is probably right on target.”

Klingenschmitt also voiced concerns over a more aggressive approach. He said that when Pueblo closed two power plants prematurely, their homeless rate went up.

Val Snider, who held an at-large City Council seat from 2011-2015, said he wants to “expand the solar options, the wind options, the geothermal options, the hydro options, and to drive that and to drive it aggressively.”

28-year-old Dennis Spiker, an Army veteran and UCCS student, responded to Snider.

“They had a chance to go to renewables and they didn't,” he said. “We had the money to go to renewables and we didn’t. So do we want to continuously see the same thing happen over and over again?”

CSU indicates that the soonest Martin Drake Power Plant can be shut down is 2023.

Ballots were mailed out to registered Colorado Springs voters earlier this month. They must be received by 7 p.m. April 2 and can be turned in at various ballot drop-off locations.

For more information on the candidates, visit the nonpartisan League of Women Voters guide here.

The debate was put on by Colorado College’s Collaborative for Community Engagement, the Colorado Springs Independent and the Trails and Open Space Coalition. Colorado College is 91.5 KRCC's licensee.