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Council Co-opts SCIP Process 

Improvement projects re-evaluated

The City Council this week spent a marathon seven hours contouring a list of proposed projects that Colorado Springs voters will be asked to approve in April.

With excruciating detail -- and while many of the city's managers stood panting in anticipation that their pet projects might be whacked or potentially embellished with additional taxpayer-approved funds -- the elected officials on Monday dissected a list of proposed Springs Community Improvement Plan (SCIP) projects.

To at least one Council member, the session was in conflict with SCIP's very purpose: letting the citizens decide what capitol improvement projects should be considered for a likely 1-cent sales tax hike that voters will be asked to approve in April.

The estimated $250 million package will be used to pay for currently unfunded capitol and operating expenses for city projects, including drainage, public works and transportation projects.


Process abused

In a letter sent to colleagues the night before the Council meeting, Councilman Bill Guman complained that the exercise appeared to be little more than a budget markup session, where members of the City Council approve and reject city staff recommendations for its annual budget.

The SCIP process, Guman noted, is supposed to be citizen-driven and to avoid appearances of political grandstanding.

"It was my understanding that Council members and staff were to keep an arm's-length distance, and allow the process to remain a citizen's-driven process," he noted in the letter.

"I had always understood this to be council's position [i.e., that we not politicize the SCIP process or attempt to influence citizen volunteers or committee members to give our own pet projects higher prioritization]. The city manager and SCIP coordinator concurred with my assessment of this several times during the last year, and confirmed that neither staff nor Council should attempt to lobby or influence the process if SCIP was to work as intended."


Defeated the basic premise

On Monday, the Council tediously worked its way through 32 projects that had been targeted as high priority, and altered several of the SCIP committee recommendations.

Among their changes was to kill a recommended $2.4 million driver training facility for cops. The Council also eliminated recommendations for an airport trauma squad and a full-time public information officer for the fire department, saying they were unnecessary or duplicative costs that have already been included in the city's budget.

The Council also eliminated proposed downtown improvement projects, and, after a lengthy discussion, tacked on $4.9 million for a three-year express bus service pilot program.

"This is a great transportation piece that will allow us to expand service in high-congestion areas," said Councilman Jim Null.

"This is a congestion mitigation approach," agreed Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace.

However, City Manager Jim Mullen noted that, by approving the transportation funding, within a matter of minutes "public works just leveraged 22 buses out of you."

Guman said that as a councilman he purposely avoided lobbying any of the SCIP volunteers to consider the pet projects he would like to see completed. Between 250 to 300 SCIP volunteers have met for four years to prioritize the city's capitol improvement needs projects.

After he wrote his scathing letter, Guman fully participated in Monday's lengthy Council session, barely mentioning his criticism from the night before.

Still, he said, he believed that by stepping in to tinker with the final list of recommendations, the Council was defeating SCIP's basic premise.

"I am very concerned with what we are about to do (with regard to dissecting SCIP and interjecting our own special projects). If I were a SCIP volunteer, this would make me feel as if my efforts and time were a complete waste," he wrote.

"After one year of working diligently to come up with a final list of projects and funding mechanisms, it looks as if Council is saying '...thanks for your suggestions, but we're really not as interested as we led you to believe we were.' "


How it started

The SCIP process was organized four years ago to engage regular citizens in prioritizing projects that the city does not have money to complete because of tax limitations, complicated by an aging and sprawling infrastructure.

SCIP itself is broken down into several committees, including groups who consider drainage, public safety, transportation, community enhancements and other projects that could be funded with voter-approved tax money.

Two years ago, voters approved the city's first SCIP package, an $88 million proposal.

Last year, Police Chief Lorne Kramer was given a hefty pay raise and was bestowed the additional title of deputy city manager when he agreed to coordinate this year's SCIP 01 process. Yet during Monday's meeting, which was televised live on Channel 18, the police chief sat quietly in the audience at City Hall, and merely observed the Council and staff's presentations while City Manager Mullen oversaw the proceedings.

From the outset, Mullen asserted that he would stand as go-between in an effort to curb excited city employees and mangers who hoped their pet projects would make the cut and be included in the list of SCIP's possible city improvements.

Despite Guman's concerns, SCIP co-chairman Lou Mellini said that the process was always designed to work as a "three legged stool," with input from citizens, the administration and the City Council.

"It was very important that [Council] became an integral part of the total picture," Mellini said. "They have the obligation that they were elected by the citizens for the decision-making process and they have the obligation to analyze and dissect that which was submitted to them."

Guman said he understands his role as an elected official. But, he said, what was supposed to be a citizen-driven process has been radically altered.

"I fully realize that the buck stops with Council, and that we ultimately have the jurisdiction over what does and does not appear on a ballot in a city election," he wrote. "As a Council member, I feel like a hypocrite at this point. We assured SCIP time and again that this was a process that was to have been void of political maneuvering, yet this is exactly where we appear to be right now."

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