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Campaigns for and against city’s streets tax pave the way to November election

It's hard to fathom that voters would reject the city's proposed tax increase for improving roads and streets on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Citywide streets are plagued with potholes, cracks and bumps, which one analysis says cost motorists $723 a year in additional vehicle wear and operating costs.

But no tax increase is a sure thing in Colorado Springs — ground zero for limited government and the birthplace of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which caps government revenue and requires voters to approve debt and tax measures.

So while every driver experiences the city's jaw-rattling craters, the tax hike might be a tough sell.

Already announcing opposition are the conservative Koch-brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity and the father of tax limitation, Douglas Bruce.

Chief among supporters are builders, developers, wealthy influence brokers and new Mayor John Suthers, who took office in June after a campaign that hammered on fixing roads.

Suthers says a defeat in November would mean continued degradation of roads, from 60 percent of streets in poor condition today to 75 percent by 2020. Moreover, a ballot failure would deal a deadly blow to the city's economic development efforts, he says.

"I think that will send a very bad message ... if we can't as a community address this issue of fundamental government services," he says.

The measure, proposed by Suthers and referred to the ballot by City Council, would raise the city's sales tax rate by .62 of a percent for five years. (The plan is to seek renewal for another five years down the road.)

The tax would add 6.2 cents on every $10 purchase and cost the average household about $100 per year, backers say. No new city employees would be hired, all work would be handled through competitive bids, and after five years, nearly one in five miles of the city's 5,639-mile road network would be resurfaced.

The point man for the "vote yes" effort is William Mutch, a political consultant for Colorado Springs Forward, a nonprofit formed last year to influence public policy.

Mutch says via email he hopes to raise $100,000 to begin the campaign by a new issue committee, Springs Citizens Building the Future. The campaign, he says, will rely on TV and radio and also focus on "education and coalition building."

Mutch says he's hired Starboard Group, a consulting firm that worked on Suthers' mayoral campaign, as well as former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Josh Penry, who's chairing GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio's campaign in Colorado, and Steve Adams, former president of the Colorado AFL-CIO.

The campaign will be funded by donations from nonprofits, community leaders and professional organizations, such as the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors, the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs, the Regional Business Alliance and auto dealers, among others.

"We have a lot of outreach to do," Mutch says, "so we are taking nothing for granted."

Working in the "vote yes" effort's favor is the public's fury over the city's broken-down roads. "We believe people of Colorado Springs are angry and frustrated about the potholes and neglected maintenance and are ready to work together to fix our city," Mutch says.

But anger doesn't automatically translate to a yes vote. Just ask political strategist Kevin Walker, who helped promote a stormwater fee measure that failed at the polls last November despite spending $352,885 on the campaign that came in the wake of repeated floods after the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire.

A crucial difference with the road tax effort, Walker says, is the support from one key figure — the mayor. Steve Bach vocally opposed the 2014 regional drainage measure. Suthers supports the road tax.

"The difference is a mayor who can articulate a vision for this community," Walker says, "especially one who won 68 percent of the vote" when elected in May.

Opponents, though, are undeterred in their effort to defeat the tax.

Americans for Prosperity contended in a news release and a news conference in mid-August the city could tap the existing budget for $50 million a year to fix roads, and it has posted a "say NO to more taxes" message on Facebook. AFP's state director Michael Fields says via email AFP hopes to "encourage the city to look at all options for funding road improvements before pushing for this sales tax increase." AFP is a well-funded political machine capable of mounting widespread efforts through door-to-door and phone contacts and other outreach.

Bruce's political influence is well-documented. He mounted and won passage of Issue 300 in 2009 that effectively abolished the city's stormwater fee, though he went to jail for tax evasion since then. A year ago, he vocally opposed another "rain tax" campaign, and it failed.

Bruce plans to use his own money to print fliers opposing the road tax, and he points to a Facebook posting that claims the city has failed to spend $19 million already collected on roads over the past four years.

Councilor Andy Pico dismisses that contention, saying, "I looked into it very specifically. In reality, if a project wasn't competed at the end of the year, the money is still allocated [the next year], and when the project is completed, it's expended. The current balance of all that is zero."

Calling the proposal the biggest tax hike in city history, Bruce notes if it's approved, Colorado Springs will have the 17th highest cumulative sales tax rate, at 8.25 percent, among the 50 largest cities in America.

Bruce also will hammer on how roughly $700 million raised by Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority's tax since 2005 has been spent. "That's two-third of a billion dollars and where did it go?" says Bruce. "They are not spending it on potholes."

The city's "facts and FAQs" about the tax hike says 55 percent of the RTA's 1-cent sales tax goes to capital projects, such as the Woodmen Road and Academy Boulevard interchange; 10 percent goes to public transportation, such as buses; and 35 percent for maintenance. Of that maintenance share, 15 percent is used for bridges, 15 percent for traffic signals, and 70 percent, or about $16 million annually, goes to street maintenance.

"This is enough to resurface 2 percent or less of the city's roads each year," the fact sheet says, while the city's former practice, before two recessions in the past 15 years, was to resurface 10 percent per year.

Bruce also notes that while supporters of the stormwater fee said there was no money for flood control projects, after voters said "no," the city found a way to come up with $19 million a year from existing revenues.

"The point is, when we said, 'No, raising taxes is not the first resort. You need to set better budget priorities,' now they're doing it," Bruce says. "We could do the same with this pothole tax and by saying no, force them to spend more money on potholes from their enormous budget."

Suthers counters that coming up with money for stormwater involved contributions from Springs Utilities as well as budget cuts, and an opportunity due to the retirement of bonds issued nearly 20 years ago.

"There's no way we will find the necessary money to deal with the nature and scope of our road problems," the mayor says. Asked if he would support another measure a year from now should this one fail, Suthers says yes.

"I'm not in this to be as politically popular as I can be," he says. "I'm in it to solve the problems for the city of Colorado Springs."

The city's other ballot measure asks permission to keep $2.1 million in excess revenue collected in 2014 to spend on trails.

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