Colorado Springs voters will get to weigh in on $4.75M TABOR retention measure for police academy

Abigail Beckman, KRCC News
Colorado Springs Police Department recruits attend training at the department’s current training facility.

Updated: Sept. 1, 2023, 2:30 p.m.

Voters in Colorado Springs will be asked to allow the city to keep $4.75 million in tax refunds to help acquire space for a new police training facility. City council members voted 7-1 in favor of adding a Taxpayer's Bill of Rights — or TABOR — retention question on the ballot this November.

If approved, this measure will allow the city to keep all expected money that would otherwise be refunded to citizens. The city estimates the refund to be just over $20 per person, although only those who have accounts with Colorado Springs Utilities would receive them.

Councilor Mike O'Malley was not present for the vote. 

Dave Donelson was the lone no vote. "I support our police force," he said. But he raised questions about a polling process aimed at gauging the public's appetite for such a measure. He also parsed it out into two separate issues: does the city need a new police training center, and whether a TABOR measure is necessary or the smartest way to do it. 

"Even those who support the police training center don't need to support this. I think we have other sources to get the money," he said. "If we're going to borrow 90 percent of it, hell, borrow 100 percent of it and let people have their TABOR refund." 

The final cost of the project for a new training facility depends on whether an existing building is renovated or a new property is purchased. The $4.75 million would serve as seed money to leverage additional funding. Colorado Springs Mayor Yemi Mobolade said  the cost to retrofit a property would likely be between an estimated $12 million and $21 million. A brand new facility could cost as much as $45 million, according to the mayor's office.

Those in favor argue CSPD's current training facility limits the department's ability to recruit and retain staff. Speaking an an individual, not on behalf of the commission, Jim Mason with the city's Law Enforcement Transparency and Advisory Commission (LETAC) said he supports the training facility and the ballot measure being brought to voters. The Colorado Springs Police Protective Association said it endorses the measure. A representative from Harrison School District 2 said the district is also in support.

In July, Police Chief Adrian Vasquez told city council that in order to meet the department's goal of a continuous hiring and training process, they're shifting things around in the current facility to make do. He said right now, the department doesn't have enough space to simultaneously offer training to recruits and existing officers. 

He called the current building a "financial liability." 

"The problem is that we have to have classroom space and [pay attention to] things like instructor-to-student ratio," Vasquez said. That's so the department can meet state standards. "They're very particular about their requirements [for] everything from HVAC and air quality requirements but more importantly how much space do we need to be able to do, for example, reality-based training."

Mayor Mobolade has argued that because a limited number of citizens are eligible for TABOR refunds, putting the money toward a training facility offers a wider benefit for the city. 

"If the city keeps this [money] and we invest it in the future of our public safety needs, everyone benefits," he said. "On your worst day, when you need to reach out to our law enforcement officers and our friends who keep our community safe, you should have the guarantee that you're getting the best  that the community has to offer." 

The city has already set aside $1.8 million in public safety sales tax revenues for the new proposed facility. Mobolade has said the city will pursue the facility even if the measure does not get voter approval.

"We're looking at financing it through the public safety sales tax fees and dipping into some of our city's reserves," he said, describing the contingency plan to retrofit an existing building. "If we go through the other route of acquiring new land, we would use that $5 million to purchase land and invest in the design phase of the project, and then the rest of that rest of the money will be a bond measure." 

CSPD currently has 730 sworn officers with 88 open positions, according to records recently provided by the department. Last year, 85 officers left the force. So far this year, 33 have left. Of those, close to one-third cited personal reasons for leaving. Nearly the same number retired. 37 recruits are expected to join CSPD once they finish training later this year. It's unclear how those statistics compare to other police departments in the state.

Citizens opposed to the measure have questioned the CSPD's need for the funds, with some saying they fear adding officers would disproportionately impact disenfranchised communities. Some suggested the money should be used for affordable housing projects and addressing homelessness. 

Councilor Yolanda Avila ultimately voted to put the measure on the ballot, "so that you, the voter, can say what you need to say. Use your voice, use your vote in the way that you best see fit." 

But, she also questioned using a TABOR refund for a new police academy. "We have to do it in another way responsibly," she said, "and not take from people that are already desperate."

KRCC's Andrea Chalfin contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the role of Jim Mason speaking on behalf of himself, not as a spokesperson for the Colorado Springs Law Enforcement Transparency and Advisory Commission (LETAC) as a whole.

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