Interview: Colorado Springs mayoral candidate Wayne Williams speaks with KRCC ahead of the runoff election

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29min 12sec
Colorado Springs mayoral candidate Wayne Williams.
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Colorado Springs mayoral candidate Wayne Williams sat down with KRCC’s Andrea Chalfin ahead of the May 16 runoff. He spoke about why he wants to run for mayor, his proudest achievement as an elected official and addressed key constituent concerns.

The interview and transcript has been edited for time and clarity.

Andrea Chalfin: Wayne Williams, thank you for being here.

Wayne Williams: Thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate the opportunity. 

Chalfin: Absolutely. So why is it that you want to be mayor?

Williams: I want to be a mayor because I want to continue the progress this great city has made over the last eight years and the last four years that I served on city Council. I enjoy making a difference in the community that Holly and I have called home for more than 30 years. I want this to be the kind of place that we want to continue to live in and the kind of place that will cause people to make the same decision we did, which is, this is the place, this is where we want to live, this is where we want to raise a family. This is where we want to recreate. This is where we want to be a part of the community.

Chalfin: You've been in politics a long time having been on city council previously, Secretary of State, El Paso County Clerk and so on. What do you consider your proudest achievement as an elected official? 

Williams:  I think the proudest achievement is the creation of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, Pikes Peak RTA. And I say that because it required bringing leaders together from different jurisdictions. So, the county, the city of Colorado Springs. At that point, it was Green Mountain Falls and Manitou [Springs]. And balancing the different needs and desires and coming up with a workable solution to address what at that time was our most pressing issue, our transportation needs.

The reason I view that as one of my proudest accomplishments is that other jurisdictions have tried that and they couldn't make it work. And so being able to bring those diverse people together to address a critical need for our community. And part of our goal was to make sure we actually delivered on the promises made. And one of the exciting things is to see the people of this community say, yes, you have actually delivered on these promises. We give you the list of projects, it's a horrendously long ballot question. But I like that specificity. Tell people what you're going do, and then when you renew it, do exactly what we've been able to do, which is say, promises made, promises kept.

Chalfin: And what about something that you regret or that you view as a mistake or maybe wished you handled differently?

Williams: I regret that we haven't always been able to make everybody happy. And I try, but I don't always succeed. And sometimes the interests are so strong that you're not able to make everyone happy. The landowner and the neighbor, it's sometimes hard to balance those. And we try.

I've had folks that have been unhappy with some of the decisions we've made. And in some cases, those were folks that have been real strong supporters of the campaign. I remember one of those, projected land use, we turned down and I called the person afterwards. My signs have been on his property, he had donated to the campaign and I said, ‘Hey, I am happy to answer any questions you've got,’ and he said, ‘Wayne, if that's what you thought is the right decision, I don't have any questions.’ And our signs have been on that property since, as well.

But not everyone is always as understanding when you make a decision that you believe is in the best interest of the community, and it's hard to make those balances work.

Chalfin: Now we send surveys out to all the candidates for the general election. And you identified public safety as the number one challenge facing the next mayor of Colorado Springs. How are we doing?

Williams: We're doing well. Crime is down by 9 percent according to the Common Sense Institute. But there are some areas in which we're struggling and there are a number of factors in that.

One of those is as we've had a shift in the respect for law enforcement and the desirability of law enforcement as a career that has caused us to have some recruitment and retention issues. We've addressed those though in what I think are some important ways. One of those is moving to a year-round academy. So we're no longer saying, Hey, we'd like you to be a police officer, please come back in four months when the academy starts. In this economy, people aren't waiting around for four months to find a job.

Also, trying to make sure that we provide the training for our personnel that they need. Governor Polis appointed me to the Peace Officer Standard Training Board. So it's not just at a local level, but also at a statewide level that I'm involved in trying to make sure that we use the tools that are available now, more of interactive training as opposed to just book learning. And I think that's important as we go forward.

We've added 62 new police positions, 66 new firefighters, three new fire stations. One of the ways we did that is to establish a new funding mechanism and a new fee on developers that specifically addresses these public safety needs. And so there, again, there were some supporters of mine, in some cases that weren't necessarily very excited about the fact that we imposed a new fee on them, but it was necessary for the good of our community. And that's one of the things I'm always going to put first is the good of our community.

Chalfin: Let's talk about ambulance services too. That's public safety as well. Response times are reportedly up. What is your plan to deal with the growing strain on our emergency system and the response times and getting those to a more reasonable level?

Williams: We've got a number of different aspects of this. With respect to police and fire, one of the ways is a more effective triage, so we're sending the right resources. If someone has fallen down, they don't need a hook and ladder truck.

We've also worked…if you watch [tv shows with first responders] you see people calling the hospital and saying, ‘Hey, here's what's coming in. Let us describe that.’ We're not doing that anymore. We're actually inputting data electronically so that it goes into the emergency room system so there's not that risk of that miscommunication.

In terms of ambulance service, that's something that is done through a competitive bid. We do not have a city-run ambulance. We have private entities. We have looked at the possibility of possibly bringing that within the fire department. That would require some changes and ultimately probably a ballot issue to make that work. It’s something that I'm committed to looking at going forward, because we have to make sure we provide the best service for our community.

Chalfin: In response to the surveys that we sent out, you said you support the current setup of the Law Enforcement Transparency and Advisory Commission (LETAC). We've heard from some members of city council, former members of LETAC, and community advocates who say the commission is essentially ineffective. How do you see the commission's work and ensure that what they do is heard and valued?

Williams: LETAC, or the Law Enforcement Transparency Accountability Commission, has played a significant role in changing the city budget.

One [way is] with the unanimous recommendation out of LETAC that said we should increase alternative response teams. In other words, it's not always necessary to have police officers respond in full gear. It may be appropriate in certain circumstances where you're dealing with a mental health issue or something else to send in an alternative response team. LETAC proposed some recommendations. I think we spent about half million dollars to address those recommendations in the budget, and we've continued to include that in every subsequent budget since that recommendation.

With respect to looking at our use of force, they've been very involved in that process. I would also say that having LETAC there has provided some incentives for the police department to do some things in some different ways.

One of the things that I would do as mayor, and I'm committed to this, is to make sure that we are proactive in terms of having the police department provide information and seek input on some things.

Ultimately, I do believe it needs to be an advisory commission. I don't favor the position of those who say we should make them in charge —  or [put] some other group that's not accountable to the people in charge. The mayor, under our strong mayor form of government, is in charge of the police department and has that responsibility and is directly accountable to the voters. I think that's a much better method than an unelected body that is not accountable to anyone making those decisions.

Having said that, I believe that LETAC plays a vital role. I helped create it. I was one of the instigators of making it happen and I believe that having that balance is important. That dialogue included a couple of the leaders of the Black Lives Matters protest here in Colorado Springs. It included our retired former police chief, who was our first Hispanic police chief, Luis Velez. It included the widow of a slain sheriff's deputy. By bringing people together from across the community, you're able to have that dialogue and have those recommendations actually mean something.

Chalfin: Keeping on this theme of public safety, there has been some concern by residents, particularly on the west side of the city, about public safety as it pertains to evacuation planning. Some have criticized the new system for notifying residents of emergencies as inadequate. What needs to happen to help keep people safe and be able to evacuate in a timely manner?

Williams: There are a number of things that we've done on City Council to address the concerns about fire evacuation. One of those is we adopted the first ever fire evacuation ordinance. There are a wide variety of inputs into that process, and making sure that we have the ability to micro-target is important. Having the zones so that the fire chief is able to give directions, ‘Hey, this group needs to prepare, this group needs to evacuate,’ and to do it with more specificity.

It's also making sure that we have additional evacuation roads. We’re also working on the traffic side for making sure that we can address potential bottlenecks. And being able to model those is an important part of it.

Of course, one of the things that we have to do is try to minimize the possibility of fire. And so one of the ballot issues that we brought to the people is to say, ‘Will you help us create a fund that will specifically address fire mitigation?’ We've seen absolutely the key role that fire mitigation plays by establishing this fund. Not only are we able to proactively address some of these issues, but also provide a source for matching funds as the federal government begins to look at the National Forest and others. So all of that helps minimize that risk. But all of those are steps that have to be taken. And  I think we have made a number of strides in that area. I want to continue to do that as our next mayor.

Chalfin: Along the same lines,  why continue to develop high density dwellings in some of our most at-risk areas, adding more people to the need for those evacuation rounds, which are some, say, already strained?

Williams: One of the things that we look at in that process is what is the traffic capacity? Any major development requires that examination. One of the purchases we made with TOPS funding was the purchase of land that could be developed below the quarries. We've done the same thing with one of the purchases by Cheyenne Mountain — Fisher's Canyon purchase. So, we've used tops funds to minimize the number of parcels that can developed in that wildland interface area so we can do the fire mitigation that's necessary. I know that not everyone likes it when you do that, but that's a critical thing we have to do in our community.

Chalfin: I'm just going to give a broad question here about growth. How do you balance growth with the challenges that it brings?

 Williams: I think the most important thing to do as we balance growth with those challenges is to make sure that growth pays its own way. As a member of City Council, there are a number of steps that we've taken to do just that. We, as I mentioned, established a new public safety fee.

We also though, as Colorado Springs Utilities, [established] a new water resource fee. And this is about 6,000 a home that allows us to acquire the water that's necessary. We've begun that process in working cooperatively with our friends in the Arkansas Valley. We just signed an agreement with Bent County, which is in the lower Arkansas Valley, that allows us to acquire 15,000 acre feet. 15,000 acre feet is enough for a hundred thousand people. So it's significant. We've purchased 3,000 of those already, but we're doing it in an innovative way instead of the buy and dry method that used to take place in Colorado and still does in other jurisdictions.

We're working with the farmers to upgrade their irrigation system and then buying the water that's saved. That keeps the land in agricultural production [and] still lets us enjoy the Rocky Fort Cantaloupe and all the other wonderful things that we like, but makes it so we're actually able to get the water we need and still support our agricultural partners in the Arkansas Valley. And so we've made those changes.

We've also increased the cost for park fees so that if you are paying fees in lieu of land dedication, you have to pay a higher rate than you used to do.

All of those are ways to try to make sure that we balance that out and address those needs. As a community, I want us to continue to grow, but I want us to grow smartly and I want us to grow in a way that doesn't adversely impact the existing residents.

Chalfin: Colorado Springs has long had a reputation — for better or worse earned, earned not — as being too developer friendly. On city council, you backed a water ordinance that requires a certain amount of water be available before the city can annex more property to build on. The ordinance passed on a five to four vote, but critics say that it basically creates a developer monopoly in favor of Norwood. People say Norwood is financially backing your campaign. Is that true? How do you see that relationship?

Williams: So first, let's talk about the ordinance itself. The ordinance itself is designed to ensure that as a community, we have enough water for those of us who are already here. It does not prohibit development, but it requires before we annex additional land that we have sufficient water for it. I think most of us, when we look at Lake Powell, lake Mead recognize the need, particularly once you realize that 70 percent of the water we use in Colorado Springs when we count reuse, comes out of the Colorado River. And while this year was a great snow year, that's not a strategy to hope and pray that it snows once every 20 years. So it was absolutely important that we provide a way of assessing, ‘Is there enough water?’

And let's look at what we had before. What we had before was a, ‘As long as there's enough water for the foreseeable future,’ was the quote. Well, I don't know how I defined that.

And so, you had a system that wasn't fair; that wasn't laid out; that wasn't specific. And by moving to a specifically defined buffer, we have provided more certainty and fairness in the process with respect to who benefits, and who doesn't. Right? The first beneficiary, and the most important is the existing residents of Colorado Springs who know that there is going to be enough water. So, whenever they turn on that tap, water's going to be there. That is the first and highest priority with respect to who owns land.

It is true that Norwood owns a significant portion of the land. They don't own all of it, however, and generally, if you've got multiple different entities that can compete, that is not a monopoly. Plus, there is no requirement that someone live in the city of Colorado Springs. And so certainly, there is the opportunity for land to develop outside the city. That's been done. Certainly, if you talk to the people in Falcon, they view themselves as part of our community, but they don't live within the city. And so there is not a monopoly in terms of who can build a house or warehouse can be built. Is there a limitation on who all comes here? Yes.

It's not as developer friendly as it used to be because of this ordinance. I supported this ordinance that is less developer friendly, and I did that because it was the right thing to do for our community.

It is true that I have support from a number of people across our community whose economic wellbeing is tied to a successful economy. And I'll give Colorado Springs Forward as an example of that. That's happens to be the largest donor. They are a group of couple hundred folks focused on trying to make sure we have economic progress in our community.

They were a big funder for some of our TOPS initiatives; for our paving initiatives for two C. And so they've consistently looked for what initiative or what candidate is going to help move our community forward, thus the name. But also, who's going to help foster the economic wellbeing. And when you look at what's happened over the last eight years, we've gone from a $30 billion economy to a $40 billion economy that affects all of us and helps all of us. Whether it's we're we own a business or work for a business, it enables us to have a stronger economy.

And I've been here for 30 years. I've seen it when, you know, Hibbard’s closed downtown and Montgomery Ward closed and everyone was closing. It's a lot more exciting to have Robson Arena and Widener Field, and see the cranes on the skyline. Those are things we didn't used to see.

I'm committed to continuing that economic vitality. That's why folks like Colorado Springs Forward are supporting me because they know that I am the candidate who can deliver that, partially because I'm the only candidate that's actually ever had any elected executive experience.

Chalfin: I want to go back to the water ordinance just quickly, and you addressed some of this, but there are flat out allegations that the developers have your ear; people like Colorado Springs Forward have your ear…that you are influenced by them. I just want your response to that.

Williams: It's absolutely not true. First, as I've talked about, I've imposed a host of fees, in the range of close to $10,000 when you add them all up, on developers. And that's a per lot fee.

If that allegation had any truth at all, I would never have done that. They were not happy with those discussions on public safety fees on establishing a water resource fee and so there's some very strong evidence that's absolutely false.

I have turned down developments. I have approved them. And I look at what is the best answer at that particular time. And I don't do it with respect to whether someone's donated or not donated. That is the absolute truth.

It's the absolute record and there's a lot of evidence to support exactly what I just said.

Chalfin: As developments and centers continue to be built, it's really important to pay attention to the ways people get to and from these new things, as well as the existing areas. And, and I am curious about 2C, which is a voter approved tax for the roads, along with PPRTA, which we've talked about. Is that enough for the road infrastructure?

Williams: So, 2C addresses maintenance issues, many of which were long standing going back decades. It is an important component. It doesn't do any of the new construction. It simply is going back and [continues] to maintain our roads.

Colorado Springs is kind of unique, right? There's this huge swing in temperature and so unlike most places where it either never freezes or it freezes and stays frozen, we have a freeze thaw cycle on a daily basis during much of the year. And that plays havoc on our roads. So we have to make sure we continue to invest in our roads -- absolutely. 2C has been a godsend in that area. And we have that whole list of every road that's going to be addressed. Are there others that need to be? Yes. I don't foresee that need going away.

What hasn't been addressed, and here's where the key issue is, the state is no longer funding transportation the way it used to do. And many of our major thoroughfares — Powers Boulevard, I-25 — are state highways and there has been a lack of funding for them. So we have to advocate at the state level to make sure that transportation's being funded and that our roads are part of that process.

Part of what the mayor has to be able to do is have those relationships at the state level to advocate for necessary projects in our community. And I do have those relationships and I've shown how I've been able to help bring some of that funding to our community.

Chalfin: Some of the most difficult challenges are getting from east to west in terms of transportation. Just briefly, how do you propose that we solved this issue?

Williams: One of the things that was approved in Connect COS is a study that will look at some of those east-west mobility issues in that central part. We did say that constitution is not part of that calculation. So it's looking at how do we make things work in the best way possible?

One of the things that some of the other east-west mobility studies have shown is that completion of Powers Boulevard actually helps the east-west traffic as well because people are then more likely to go in a different direction.

And it's also finding ways that help the mobility to take place. So one of those, for example, that we did at Woodman and Union is pulling the left turn lane over earlier. And by doing that, instead of having to wait for a four-cycle light, it's a three-cycle light. And even that change has made it so there's no longer that type of long line there used to be at that intersection that I used to sit through for two or three cycles.

So it’s looking for ways to balance the technology with the changes in infrastructure with the funding. And all of those are part of that process.

I do get excited about these issues in part because I've been the vice chair of the state transportation advisory committee, so it's something I've been involved in for a long time and we've made progress. There's more we have to continue to do and that east-west mobility is a key component of that, particularly as we expand to the east and that's what the projections show. And so we've got to make sure we plan for that.

Chalfin: We've been talking a lot about the need to improve how people get around the city, but we also want to touch on where people live and who has access to housing. In 2018, Mayor Suthers set a five-year plan to add an average of 1,000 affordable housing units each year. City officials say that they've been successful in meeting that goal, but the five-year plan ends this year. Is that something that you will continue? Do you have different ideas of what you think is needed?

Williams: Absolutely. We need to continue to emphasize the need and at a minimum 1,000 per year is… we have to at least continue that process. But let's talk about… I actually got started in government when Bob Isaac asked me to serve on the Colorado Springs Housing Authority Board in 1994. And so we did a number of things including rebuilding Lowell School and then it triggered an economic renewal in that whole southeast downtown area.

We built, in conjunction with Peterson Air Force Base, apartment buildings known as Creekside at Norwood, which is designed to address housing for enlisted personnel.

On city council, we've done some other exciting things. So one of those, I talked about the water resource fee that we have imposed on developers. We also created a fund to address those water resource fees for affordable and attainable housing. So to incentivize affordable attainable housing, we've got a process where you can qualify for up to 100 percent, or it's a sliding scale based on the affordability of the particular project, how many are available.

We've also eliminated the sales tax at the city level for building materials for affordable and attainable housing. And so by incentivizing affordable and attainable housing, by not charging that sales tax, we've been able to actually increase and exceed that 1,000 unit goal over the last year.

It's not limited to what we did at the city though. So one of the things I want to do is advocate for a similar change at the state level [and] at the county level because that provides an incentive that's market-driven, that doesn't have government building it, but allows a reason for a developer, a builder to say, ‘I want to do it this way.’

Absolutely, we need to work with the state on the new funding sources that have been approved by the voters.

And going forward, there's one glaring area that we have to address and that is with respect to condominiums. We built a couple thousand homes, a couple thousand apartments, you know, how many condos we built? Seven. Not seven buildings. One building. Seven units. And for the entry-level homebuyer, the difference in price is astronomical. And so because of some legislation at the state level perhaps, because of also the way federal taxes are treated, it is not economically viable to build condos in Colorado.

We have to work with the legislature to change the construction defects to make it so that it in incentivizes folks to build that entry-level homeownership product. Because helping people to get into that first home is a key factor. It's ultimately how people build wealth. You put 10 percent down and you get 100 percent of the appreciation. It's a really great deal over time. And so those are some things that we have to address as a community.

Chalfin: So affordable or attainable housing doesn't really address necessarily a related issue, which is homelessness, people experiencing homelessness. What will your approach be to addressing that issue?

Williams: So with respect to homelessness, there's a number of ways that we have to address it. One of those is first, making sure that there is a place where anyone who needs to go, can go. The Springs Rescue Mission has been a great partner in that area, I’ve been visiting with the Salvation Army, who wants to build a permanent site for that short-term family housing, which is something we don't have. So if a family is experiencing homelessness, they can't stay together right now in the housing units that are constructed for long-term usage. So that's part of what we have to do. And I want to work with the Salvation Army as mayor to advocate for the funding for that.

That side then enables us to actually enforce ordinances and rules that say, ‘No, you can't camp along our waterways. No, you can't camp in our public streets.’

I do favor continuing to expand the no-sit-lie area. It's one of the things that we expanded it when I was on city council in a divided vote. I was supportive of that. I want to continue to expand that to address the needs of an expanding downtown area. But you have to have a place for someone to go in order for the tell them they can't be here. And so that's why it's working on both sides.

I very much support the Mayor Suthers initiative that addresses trying to help, particularly veterans, who may have an issue with respect to whether they can provide sufficient security deposit. And so guaranteeing landlords that, ‘Yes, if this, if you rent to this veteran, we will make sure you were held a whole.’

So those are all aspects of what I want to continue to do. We need to continue to expand our Homeless Outreach Teams in the police department to make sure that we can enforce things. But again, we have to have a place for people to go and we need to continue to work with our nonprofit community to make that happen.

Chalfin: Wayne, thank you for your time today.

Williams: Thanks so much for the opportunity to address you and your listeners today. I appreciate.