Voters ready to tweak TABOR 

Local polling shows much less confidence in mayor

As any good community organizer knows, leadership starts with listening. Before seeking change, you must start by understanding where citizens stand on important issues. Chatting with colleagues or taking stock of what's said by those with the largest megaphones can provide interesting insights, but rarely gives you a true sense of any community. Instead, it often results in circular logic and groupthink, where repeated "wisdom" goes round and round — and the real facts are upside-down.

To help provide more representative information, the Independent commissioned Luce Research, a nationally respected survey firm based in Colorado Springs, to poll local voters.

Our first survey, in January 2009, questioned a random sample of the 73.1 percent of registered Colorado Springs voters who cast ballots in the November 2008 general election. Our second survey, completed earlier this month, questioned a group from the 30 percent of "highly engaged" citizens who voted in November 2008 as well as in the April 2009 municipal election.

The findings, as shown in the accompanying graphics, indicate some downward trends in how much confidence people feel for their Colorado Springs government. They also reveal that a majority of voters, despite having a generally favorable view of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR), would be willing to repeal most of it — as long as they still could have the final say on any tax increases.

In our view, these polls also should serve as a reliable barometer of public sentiment as city officials determine what issues to put before voters in the upcoming November election.

Sobering findings

• In July's polling, just 27 percent of highly engaged voters said they believe our City Council deserves a grade of A or B, while more than two-thirds (68 percent) think our Council merits a C, D or F. That stands out in comparison to the January poll, in which 54.9 percent of respondents thought our city was generally moving in the right direction, while 29.4 percent thought it was moving in the wrong direction.

• Mayor Lionel Rivera is the only elected city official with high name recognition (73 percent in January survey, 89 percent in July). Tom Gallagher "leads" the rest of Council in name recognition from the January poll with 32 percent, while Scott Hente and Darryl Glenn drop all the way to nearly 15 percent.

• In January, Rivera enjoyed a substantial plus-35 favorable/unfavorable (54 to 19) spread. After the controversies surrounding the U.S. Olympic Committee and budget cuts, our mayor now maintains less than a 2-point favorable/unfavorable spread, 46.5 to 44.7.

• Since the mayor is the only elected city official with high name recognition, his plummeting popularity speaks ill for the amount of social capital that Council has to impact civic behavior.

• In January, voters on average thought the mayor earned nearly $93,000 a year and that Council members were paid more than $44,000 a year. Their actual pay was, and is, just $6,250 annually.

• TABOR had a rating of 58 percent favorable to 34 percent unfavorable among likely voters.

• Among the most highly engaged voters, even a small property tax increase (less than 1 mill) targeted toward the city's general fund lacked enough public support to prevail.

Silver linings

• Voters only support the first part of TABOR, which mandates that all sales or property tax increases must be approved by voters. By an overwhelming margin — 59 percent for, 30 percent against — voters would support eliminating all of TABOR's other provisions, including tax and revenue caps as well as the damaging ratchet-down formulas. And though TABOR author Douglas Bruce has almost 88 percent name recognition, he is personally unpopular.

• If an election took place in July, voters would endorse a targeted mill levy to pay for watering and maintaining ball fields, and opening closed restrooms by a margin of 57 to 34 percent.

• By a clear majority (more than 60 percent favorable) voters support significant pay increases for City Council and the mayor. But voters also believe that given our current financial crisis, now is not the time for such a reform.

• About 50 percent of highly engaged voters read the Independent, while 78 percent read the Gazette. Voters in the 18-to-44 age bracket tend to read the Independent, while those 60-and-older rely more heavily on the Gazette.

Where to go from here

As much as Colorado Springs desperately needs additional property tax revenue to continue providing basic services, voters are not yet ready to support a significant increase in our mill levy. With ballots set to be mailed in mid-October, less than 90 days away, now is not the time for a Hail Mary pass. Hope is not a plan.

Specifically, we do not need another poorly crafted, poorly run campaign such as the disastrous 1A "job creation" measure that voters soundly defeated in April.

Instead, the Independent urges City Council to place on the upcoming November 2009 ballot a measure to keep the popular mandate that citizens approve all new taxes, while jettisoning the unpopular financial formulas and never-ending, spiraling-down ratchet effects of the rest of TABOR. (For more on this, see "TABOR tyranny," cover story, April 9.)

Such a measure will likely pass. More importantly, without reform this year, Colorado Springs will almost certainly face a crisis of enormous magnitude in two years.

All government entities in Colorado must abide by the state constitution's TABOR Amendment, which caps revenue increases to population growth and the inflation rate as measured by the Denver/Boulder Consumer Price Index. The only exception is when voters approve ballot issues allowing a government entity to keep any excess revenue, as happened in the April city election.

Colorado Springs is the state's only city that has its own, additional TABOR restrictions. The formula the city uses to determine possible revenues (and, thus, expenditures) takes into account two variables: spending in the previous year and city growth (defined as net new construction). In simple terms, the city calculates its possible revenues using both formulas (the state one and the special city one), and then must accept whichever yields less money and more limits.

In most years, there has been minimal difference between the end results of those formulas. But we do not now live in normal times. Consider that a decrease in the assessed value of local property can reduce property taxes; when property taxes fall, the city takes in less money, and thus has less to spend. Property values today have plummeted by 20 to 25 percent, and after assessments do the same — typically, it takes two years for that to happen — the city will have a lower assessed value figure and lower property tax revenue. And we'll be stuck with the diminished result.

So, unless this forced reliance on TABOR to determine local spending limits is altered (or removed) soon, Colorado Springs will be forced to slash services come 2011, even more drastically than we've already seen. That will be true even if our economy improves, sales tax collections increase and inflation returns to a modest 5 percent annual rate.

We're talking about less police and fire protection. Fewer snowplows. Closed park restrooms. Thousands of unfilled potholes. Higher car repair bills. More accidents. Entire departments gone.

(Cautionary note: Though reforming TABOR enjoys popular support right now, we can expect a vigorous campaign against this needed measure from the Gazette as well as several local anti-tax activists and organizations. One should never, ever underestimate Bruce, who will fight this proposal tooth and nail — for it would be a huge kick in the shins to the former shin-kicking state representative and county commissioner if his hometown voters overturn parts of his amendment.)

Next week, Tom Gallagher will urge his colleagues on Council to place a measure similar to what is proposed here on the November ballot. We hope all other Councilors will give voters a chance to prevent this runaway train from wrecking our city in 2011 and beyond.

The city we save is the place we call home.

Prospective ballot issue

Survey methodology

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