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Noted: S-CAP could start needle exchange 

Needle exchange coming?

The nonprofit Southern Colorado AIDS Project is taking initial steps to establish a needle exchange program in El Paso County. Needle exchanges provide clean needles and dispose of dirty ones for IV drug users. Critics allege exchanges condone illegal drug use, but supporters say exchanges slow the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C while bringing addicts into contact with caregivers who could help them.

S-CAP executive director Richard Blair says his organization has been talking to local law enforcement and health officials to gain support. He then wants to organize a task force to explore the need and scope of the exchange, which needs approval from the county health board. "Since this is a new process, we're just taking it very slowly and very methodical," Blair says.

Needle exchanges were illegal in Colorado until last year, when a law exempted exchanges established through public process from paraphernalia laws. Other states had long allowed the exchanges, but a change in 2009 allowed federal money to fund them. With roadblocks gone, an exchange in Denver was approved this month. — JAS

Register to vote by Oct. 3

Time is winding down on voter registration for the Nov. 1 mail election. The county elections department has notified 85,412 voters that their status is inactive and they won't receive a mail ballot unless they return the provided card by Oct. 3. Of those notified, 3,185 had returned cards with updated information as of Tuesday.

You can verify and update your registration at sos.state.co.us/Voter/secuRegVoterIntro.do; for questions, call 575-VOTE (8683). Locals' ballots will be mailed Oct. 11, and Uniformed Overseas Citizens ballots go out Friday.

The ballot will contain candidates or questions from school districts, special districts, municipalities and the state. Among the issues: a measure to remove all tax liability from Springs taxpayers for Memorial Health System, and a statewide measure seeking a sales tax increase for education. Participants include Calhan, Fountain, Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs, plus 11 school districts and a handful of special districts. — PZ

Insurance hike for city staff

In what could be the opening shot of an autumn budget battle, Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach on Monday backed the previous City Council's call to raise health insurance costs for city employees.

The current employee-employer premium split is 14-86 percent. Council last year agreed the split should go to 20-80 this year, but its decision isn't binding for this year's Council.

With Jan Martin and Merv Bennett absent and Brandy Williams and Angela Dougan recusing themselves, the change got a nod Tuesday to go forward from four Councilors. Council President Scott Hente did not support the change.

Overall rates on the city's self-insured plan will rise 10 percent next year, raising the price tag for employees, anyway. But the city also wants employees to pay higher deductibles and co-pays. Bach said Council should expect employees to pay more benefit costs in the future, as costs rise. "We're going to be looking at increases year to year in employee costs," he said. — JAS

Ask, tell and party

You may have heard that Tuesday, Sept. 20 is the last day of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The local gay community certainly has.

The Underground bar downtown will host a party on the night of the 20th, starting at 6 o'clock. Active-duty and retired military get discounted drinks.

Representatives from the offices of U.S. senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet will be on hand, along with other special guests. Local activist and El Paso County Democratic secretary Carolyn Cathey helped plan the festivities, and says she's excited to welcome gay and lesbian service members to step out of the closet.

"On the 20th, it changes!" she says with a laugh. "Family Day at Mr. Biggs is going to look really different!" — JAS

Bad map for both sides?

Republicans serving on the Colorado Reapportionment Commission don't have a fan in state Rep. Amy Stephens, of Monument. Sunday, the House majority leader sent out an e-mail blasting their proposed redrawing of her district.

Democrats and Republicans have proposed new maps for the House and the Senate. In the GOP's House proposal, Stephens' District 20 has been drawn to include the more liberal Manitou Springs.

"The map moves us from a heavily Repub district (We were total about 71% if you count that Independents in HD20 vote Repub) we move more to 58% or so because Independents in Manitou Springs vote Dem," she wrote. "AND to run in this proposed district will take lots of $$$$ because it becomes more rural - so you have to mail into areas, run large billboards."

For his part, Rep. Pete Lee, whose District 18 currently includes Manitou, isn't a fan either, telling the Indy, "I think that Manitou is properly placed in House District 18. Placing it in House District 20 would fundamentally disenfranchise the voters in Manitou." — CH

Caution on USAF religion

In an unusual move, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has issued a warning to all commands calling for the Air Force to maintain neutrality regarding religion. Schwartz said leaders must balance constitutional protections for individual free exercise of religion with the prohibition against government establishment of religion.

"[Leaders] must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion," Schwartz wrote. When leaders do engage in such behavior, "the potential result is a degradation of the unit's morale, good order, and discipline." Hence, the Air Force's top uniformed officer expects chaplains, not commanders, to notify airmen of chaplain programs.

The Sept. 1 statement drew guarded praise from Mikey Weinstein, Air Force Academy grad and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. "While this letter may not be a home run," he says in a statement, "it is a damn good line drive single to potentially start a rally of Constitutional religious freedom compliance."

The statement comes amid Weinstein's ongoing skirmish with the academy over claims that the school promotes evangelical Christianity, and the Air Force's suspension of a briefing given by chaplains at Vandenberg Air Force Base that included biblical passages. — PZ

GOP's time to vent

El Paso County Republican Party vice-chair David Williams opened a Sept. 12 meeting of the executive committee, and, finding not enough members present for quorum, then closed it. What followed was a nearly two-hour discussion among the roughly 30 Republicans who showed up, including Williams, party secretary Sarah Anderson, and party COO Bill Roy.

Near the end, Roy apologized to the party for his inability to calm the roiling local waters, literally going down on his knees to plead, "Please, I beg of you, let us go forward."

The most contentious points revolved around the barring of Anderson and Williams from access to the party's database by chair Eli Bremer. Further, Republicans were not pleased with the party's new donor-advised fund, with questions raised as to the fund's legality, transparency and oversight. Nothing could be resolved, but it was a preview for likely discussions at the next committee meeting, Sept. 26. — CH

Students a-plenty

At the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, business is booming.

"Enrollment for fall 2011 increased by 429 students to 9,321, a 4.8 percent increase from fall 2010," says a press release. "This is the largest enrollment at UCCS since its founding in 1965."

In the release, chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak chalks up the increase to a renewed interest in higher education, with "more students ... recognizing the importance of a college degree." — CH

Ute Pass Express bids adios

If you haven't heard it by now, you've missed months of ads, meetings and announcements: The Ute Pass Express will stop operating Oct. 1.

Funded for three years by a federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant, the brown buses have run between Woodland Park and Colorado Springs. The grant expires next month, and the cities served agreed to terminate the service.

The reasons: None of the cities can scrounge up the money to keep the bus going, and the Express had low ridership, anyway. — JAS

Compiled by Chet Hardin, J. Adrian Stanley and Pam Zubeck.

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