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Noted: City unveils new online face 

City budget OK for Connie

If you've visited the city's Web site recently, you may have met Connie, the new avatar guide. Following a Web site revamp, the city's information technology department rented Connie — a creation of local company CodeBaby — for $3,200 a year. Chief Technology Officer Jon Saultz says the city's retained the doe-eyed, chatty young lady in hopes of stimulating a local business while at the same time lowering call volume to the city, especially in light of staff cuts.

"We couldn't handle the call volume as it was," Saultz says.

However, Connie may cause controversy. City spokeswoman Sue Skiffington-Blumberg, sounding peeved, says though her department normally handles all Web content, she was completely unaware of Connie until the avatar popped up on her screen. Since then, Skiffington-Blumberg has fielded phone calls from surprised citizens.

"She creeps them out, is the [call] we got yesterday," Skiffington-Blumberg says.

A couple City Councilors were also unaware of Connie as of Wednesday morning. Councilor Bernie Herpin says he knew nothing of her, but that Council doesn't "micromanage." Councilor Darryl Glenn, however, says he'd be curious to hear more about the new girl.

"Maybe Connie will come up in our budget presentations," he says. — JAS

Section 16 grant alive

A $1 million grant from Great Outdoors Colorado still could help Colorado Springs buy a popular chunk of open space — if negotiations proceed on a strict new schedule, says Chris Lieber, manager of the city's Trails, Open Space and Parks program.

To keep the grant in the mix, the State Land Board now has until February to get a new appraisal of the 640-acre Section 16 property. The city and GOCO must review the appraisal by the end of March, with the city and land board hammering out a new purchase deal by May.

The plan had been for the city to buy the property this year following an appraisal commissioned jointly by Colorado Springs and the land board, but negotiations broke down after the value came in at $2.8 million. The land board, mindful of a two-year-old appraisal closer to $9 million, held out for around $5 million. That closed the door to the grant money.

Section 16 has been used for hiking and other activities for decades, but the breakdown in negotiations raised the specter the land could be closed to public use starting in 2011, when the city's current lease expires and the rate could increase from $40,000 a year to around $150,000. — AL

Heimlicher's replacement will be sworn in Monday

Sean W. Paige, former editorial page editor of the Gazette and a well-known critic of the Colorado Springs city government, now will be on the inside.

Paige, 50, was chosen Wednesday afternoon by City Council to replace the recently resigned Jerry Heimlicher as the District 3 representative on Council. Paige, who was not considered a favorite among the 19 applicants, apparently made a convincing case during his interview Tuesday with the current Council members. He and retired local businessman Phil Lane deadlocked 4-4 in the next-to-last Council vote Wednesday, but after a short break, the group returned and Paige prevailed by a 5-3 margin.

Paige will be sworn in on Monday, as the Council wants to have its newest member on board for the start of deliberations regarding city budget cuts for 2010.

The only other applicants to receive votes Wednesday during a special Council meeting were Paul Johnson and Janet Suthers, both of whom were eliminated to leave the choice between Lane and Paige.

Heimlicher said he was surprised at the decision, adding, “He’s the opposite of everything I stood for, and the voters voted in April for a certain person and a certain type of person, and now they’re getting the opposite.”

Councilor Scott Hente, when asked why Paige was chosen, said, "Why not? ... Sean's been one of our biggest critics ... now he's one of us. Now he's on the other side of the fence. ... In a year and a half, voters will get to say who they want in that district."

You could be forgiven for missing the process. The Tuesday meeting at which 18 of the remaining 19 applicants gave presentations wasn't publicized. The city Web site, which normally has agendas in advance of all Council meetings, showed only an agenda for an unrelated meeting earlier in the afternoon. The city also didn't televise the interviews on the Springs TV cable channel, as is usual for public Council meetings, "because the proceedings weren't considered to be a meeting where Council action would be taken," city spokesman John Leavitt stated in an e-mail.

The lack of publicity dismayed Vice Mayor Larry Small, who said, "I really expected it to be on Springs TV. It is something people should be interested in."

The meeting Wednesday afternoon, after the Indy's press deadline, was telecast on Springs TV. That meeting was not scheduled until Tuesday. — JAS

Strandlof facing charge

The web of lies Rick Strandlof spun under the assumed name Rick Duncan now seems to have caught up with him. The Associated Press reported Oct. 2 that Strandlof faces a federal charge of making false claims about receipt of military decorations or medals, which carries up to a year in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Strandlof, posing as a former Marine Corps captain, founded the Colorado Veterans Alliance and spoke out on numerous veterans' issues before his story unraveled in May. While it is not illegal to falsely claim military service, it is a violation of federal law to falsely claim certain military decorations. According to the AP report, prosecutors believe the 32-year-old lied about having received a Purple Heart and a Silver Star.

Strandlof did not respond to the Independent's attempts this week to contact him. — AL

Jones educated on bill-paying

Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones has finally paid the state for more than two years of personal phone calls costing $940. According to the Denver Post, Jones used his job-issued cell phone for personal calls 40 percent of the time and failed to reimburse the state as required.

Jones' spending fell under scrutiny recently when it was revealed the former Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 superintendent charged the state thousands for office furniture, expensive meals, televisions and two $500-plus BlackBerry phones. Ironically, Jones earlier this year ordered that the Cesar Chavez School Network of charter schools be investigated for misusing public funds, in addition to other possible violations. — JAS

Vaccines not gone, just late

On Tuesday, the Denver Post trumpeted a statewide shortage of seasonal flu vaccine. Locally, Colorado Springs Health Partners had run out the previous day, and supply was dwindling or gone Tuesday morning at area Walgreens. All of which makes you want to howl in terror, except ... health officials say there really is no shortage.

"I think, what has happened, there had been a high demand for it," says Dr. Bernadette Albanese, El Paso County medical director. But though some flu clinics and pharmacists are running low, Albanese echoes state health officials in saying more doses are on the way. Driving the demand is widespread fear of swine flu, formally known as H1N1 influenza, though the seasonal flu vaccine offers no protection against it. Nationally, about 70 million doses of the seasonal flu vaccine have been delivered out of a total shipment of around 114 million doses, according to Mark Salley of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The long-awaited H1N1 vaccine is expected to start arriving in El Paso County this week, though initial doses will just go to health care workers and others considered to be at high risk. Locally, there's been a minor surge in hospitalizations from influenza. By Oct. 6, 34 people had been hospitalized for influenza in El Paso County since Sept. 1, including 18 in the past week. Though not all were tested specifically for H1N1, Albanese says, that's the only version of the virus known to be circulating currently. — AL

Help is on the way

Springs residents who need help with heating bills can apply to participate in Colorado Springs Utilities' Project COPE or for state funding. COPE is limited to Utilities customers who have received a disconnect notice and are experiencing an emergency situation and have already unsuccessfully applied for the state Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP). COPE pays one-time grants up to $500. For information, call 448-4800.

LEAP is federally funded and administered by the state from Nov. 1 through April 30. To qualify, you must be a permanent legal U.S. and Colorado resident, or have household members who are U.S. citizens, and your maximum household income must fall within certain federal guidelines. Those guidelines will be made available Oct. 12 and posted at csu.org. Applications can be obtained by calling 866/432-8435. — PZ

City's $20,000 mistake

With the November election upon us, you may have received a notice of election in the mail. In fact, maybe you've received two.

On Oct. 1, the city admitted to goofing a portion of the notices required by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, requiring a do-over.

Oops.

Specifically, the city listed its total actual or estimated spending for the years 2006-10. TABOR requires that the city list years 2005-09.

TABOR author Douglas Bruce, apparently outraged by the error, demanded that the city send a correction. Bruce, who opposes Measure 2C, a proposed property tax increase, was likely upset because the 2006-10 numbers painted a more sympathetic picture of the city, with spending dropping from $251.5 million in 2006 to an estimated $200.4 million in 2010 (assuming 2C fails). From 2005 to 2009, spending experienced a much slighter decline, from $215.5 million to $212.2 million. Mailing corrections cost the city $20,000. — JAS

New squadron to activate

A new Air Force C-130 airlift squadron has been activated at Peterson Air Force Base, bringing 180 new active-duty airmen to Colorado Springs through 2012, the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base said in a press release last week.

The 52nd Airlift Squadron will join the 302nd Airlift Wing as part of the Air Force's "Total Force Integration" initiative, bringing together active-duty and reserve airmen under the same organization, flying the same aircraft.

While the 52nd Airlift Squadron will be assigned to the 19th Airlift Wing, a unit located at Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, its members will be stationed at Peterson. Once activated and associated with its Air Force Reserve counterpart, the squadron will fly the same C-130s on the Peterson flightline, allowing for maximum use of the 302nd Air Wing's equipment and resources. — PZ

Compiled by Anthony Lane, J. Adrian Stanley and Pam Zubeck.

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