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SCIP 01: The Classic Colorado Springs Question 

Better services or less taxes?

click to enlarge Renovation of the Pioneers Museum is one of 107 SCIP 01 projects - SCOTT LARRICK
  • Scott Larrick
  • Renovation of the Pioneers Museum is one of 107 SCIP 01 projects

No one disputes the fact that Colorado Springs has amassed a critical backlog of infrastructure improvement needs -- drainage, sewers, transportation, road and bridge maintenance, public safety --that will cost approximately $1 billion to take care of.

How to address and pay for the mess, however, is a matter of considerable dispute. One of the issues on the April 3 ballot will be SCIP 01, the latest version of the 4-year old program devised by Colorado Springs to address infrastructure and service needs.

Essentially, SCIP 01 presents voters with two stark alternatives.

One is to approve a .9 percent sales tax increase as a way to pay for 107 capital improvement and public safety projects that citizens serving on SCIP volunteer committees deemed crucial to the city's well-being.

The other alternative is to nix the tax increase and ignore the capital improvement backlog.

Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy, a lifelong Republican and political conservative, sees SCIP 01 as the classic Colorado Springs issue. "Community improvements and better city services cost higher taxes," he observed, "but Colorado Springs is a traditionally anti-tax town -- though that may be changing.

"Viewed from a political science standpoint, Colorado Springs is service-starved," he said. "It's been that way since voters opted back in 1991 to end the half-cent sales tax that went toward funding capital improvements. Elimination of that tax, though, came at a price -- reduction in city services and a huge backlogging of capital improvement needs.

"That backlog is behind SCIP 01," Loevy added. "What we have here is a classic Colorado Springs battle between services and taxes. If you feel that city services have deteriorated to an unworkable low, if you want government to do more on that end and are willing to be taxed to bring that about, you'll vote for SCIP 01. If you'd prefer a low level of city service to a sales tax hike, you'll vote against it."


Strange bedfellows

Ironically, among those pushing the hardest for SCIP 01 are traditionally anti-tax sectors such as business, real estate and development. The measure has to pass, they warn, if the city hopes to keep the quality of life that has attracted the recent influx of people, nonprofits and businesses including Intel, MCI, Atmel and Oracle.

Rocky Scott, co-chair of the SCIP 01 campaign and head of this city's Economic Development Council, said "We have bills falling due regarding infrastructure and public safety issues that we haven't been preparing for. We can choose to invest in fixing our problems or we can choose not to fix them.

"If SCIP 01 fails," Scott warned, "we face a future of increasingly jammed roads, more potholes, inadequate snow removal, deteriorating infrastructure and slow emergency responses.

"SCIP 01 is our most palatable solution," he insisted. "It creates a permanent revenue stream for infrastructure and public safety, and people put more faith in citizen-driven processes than in government-driven processes."

Public safety activist and City Council candidate Tim Pleasant sees it very differently.

Pleasant, who has been a member of the SCIP public safety citizen committee since its inception, insists that SCIP is less citizen-driven than what Scott suggests.

"At the outset, Council promised that SCIP would be 100-percent citizen driven," he said. "The reality is that Council overrules citizen committee recommendations by deleting recommended projects and adding projects that were rejected."

Pleasant also takes issue with the way SCIP 01 gives voters an all-or-nothing choice. He claims that the citizen committees were promised that they would be able to prioritize and categorize their recommended projects in a way that would let voters choose which to approve.

"But that's not what happened," he said. "Making this an all-or-nothing package gives a second ice rink at Sertich Center equal priority to building fire stations, and renovation of the Pioneers Museum equal priority to a flood-control project on Fountain Creek.

"There's a lot of very good projects on this list," Pleasant added, "but there's also window dressing. If the choice is all or-nothing, I think the voters are going to choose nothing."

Jann Nance and Jan Doran of the Council of Neighborhood Organizations criticize SCIP 01 from a different angle. "Ask yourself why traditionally anti-tax entities like developers and realtors are pouring contributions into the campaign promoting this tax increase," Nance observed. "The answer, I think, is that the $60 million in annual tax revenues produced by this measure will take heat off the city to make development pay its way."

"CONO is concerned," Doran added, "that SCIP 01 would provide tacit voter blessing to a system that refuses to tie infrastructure cost and fiscal impact analysis to development approval. It would propagate the old system of taxpayers subsidizing developers."

A final complaint of some SCIP 01 critics is that the .9 percent sales tax would raise city taxes by nearly 40 percent and represent the highest tax increase in 30 years.

According to city budget manager Mike Anderson, however, Colorado Springs' 2.1 percent sales tax is significantly lower than any of the 10 largest Front Range municipalities. In a number of cases, it's lower by over half.

"A 40 percent increase sounds huge," Anderson said, "but only because the base rate is so low. Our tax structure can't meet our service and infrastructure demands, and it's been that way for quite some time."


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Moneyed friends

These companies -- mainly development groups -- have contributed the bulk of the $78,650 war chest to sway voters to approve the SCIP tax proposal:

Colo. Assoc. of Realtors: $20,000

Colo. Spgs. Homebuilders Assoc.: $10,000

LaPlata Investments: $10,000

Development Management: $10,000

Colo. Spgs. Chamber of Commerce: $10,000

Picolan, Inc.: $5,000

MasterBilt Homes: $2,000

Rothgerber, Johnson & Lyons: $1,000

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