The people who keep you safe have a message for you: You have to pay for their services. Representatives from the Citizens for Effective Government held a public forum Tuesday at Centennial Hall to underline the needs of El Paso County services like the sheriff's office and the Department of Health and Environment. The CEG recommended about $70 million be added to the county budget annually to meet safety needs, and additional money up front. It could be earned through a one-cent sales tax or a 15-mill property tax; there's a chance either idea could show up on your 2008 ballot.
The underfunding comes courtesy of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which has caused property-tax rates to decrease steadily even as property values have risen. El Paso County has by far the lowest property tax cost per person of any Colorado county, making city and county budgets dependent on sales-tax revenues, which have decreased in recent years.
County leaders say an increase in state and federal unfunded mandates, a growing population and higher costs mean they will have to eliminate some "core services" in 2009 unless they can get more money. They paint a bleak picture of the current situation.
Sheriff Terry Maketa said Tuesday that there have been no new sheriff patrols added since 1990. In that time, the county population has risen 43 percent, and calls for service have increased 137 percent.
"On most nights, I have one deputy covering the entire eastern third of the county," Maketa said.
The county jail has just one deputy for every 65 inmates, a stressful situation that's led to a 12 percent attrition rate. Also, of course, there's the infamous tent the county erected outside the jail to house nonviolent offenders. But even that hasn't eased pressure on the jail, Maketa said.
"The day is coming when the [jail] doors will close and those offenders will be kicked out onto the street," he said.
Mike Kazmierski, chair of the CEG and president/CEO of the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp., said the law enforcement problem goes all the way to dispatch. Calls to 911 are getting dropped or going unanswered because of staffing problems.
Others, too, are feeling the pinch. In the coroner's office, autopsy cases have doubled since 1997, with no increase in staff. The facilities are also insufficient, which can sometimes cause a backlog of bodies, and staff who go home reeking of rotting flesh.
Rosemary Bakes-Martin of the county health department said infectious diseases are up more than 50 percent in the county since 2002. Tuberculosis cases have increased, and the county had the state's highest number of whooping cough cases in 2007.
The health department's fallen behind on inspections, meaning when problems are found, they're often severe as when six community swimming pools were shut down in 2007 because they were contaminated with E. coli. The department's nowhere close to meeting a mandate to check restaurants for health-code violations biannually. Most are checked once a year, or not at all, which has led to a sixfold increase in complaints of restaurant-related illnesses and violations in two years. In 2007, 369 complaints warranted investigation.
"We have had to make tough decisions based on the funding we have," Bakes-Martin said.
Health department funding has decreased from $5.1 million in 2001 to $3.8 million in 2007.