Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Meeting brings big city news

Posted By on Wed, Sep 19, 2012 at 3:05 PM

The monthly Mayor's Counsel meeting was no snooze today, even if four Councilors chose to skip it.

The agenda included the possible sale of yet another city enterprise, a money fight with the state, city incentives for big business, and other hot items.

Here's a rundown:

• The meeting got off to a rousing start when City Council President Scott Hente suggested the city reconsider selling its Parking Enterprise.

Until November 2009, when voters outlawed the practice, City Councilors had a habit of treating the Parking Enterprise like an emergency fund — raiding its fund balance whenever a pressing need appeared. But for the last few years, the enterprise has operated without city interference, building millions in savings.

Funded by fees charged at parking meters and city parking garages, the Parking Enterprise brings in about $4.1 million a year, edging about $1 million in surplus after the bills are paid. But the enterprise is also heavily in debt, to the tune of about $14 million, and those bonds won't be fully paid off until 2027.

That presents a problem for those who would like to offload the enterprise, because the debts must be paid before a change of ownership can take place. City Parking Administrator Greg Warnke notes that the city has talked of selling the enterprise many times, but upon closer inspection has found the prospects dim. Even the Sustainable Funding Committee drew a blank.

That history, however, didn't appear to disuade Hente or Councilor Merv Bennett, who both seemed keen to see if the Downtown Partnership or the Downtown Development Authority could take over the enterprise. (Leaders of the downtown entities have long expressed an interest in doing so.)

Mayor Steve Bach was aware of the situation, saying, "Just at a staff level, this has been coming up monthly."

He said the Downtown Partnership wanted the city to hand over the Parking Enterprise "for a dollar." The mayor, however, said the city should consider selling for "a market-rate price" of perhaps $25 million. Voters, he said, should weigh in on any proposed sale.

But both the mayor and Councilor Bernie Herpin urged caution. Herpin noted that because the enterprise was a nonprofit, it could accept lower fees and put money toward the beautification of downtown. The mayor, meanwhile, said any sale of the Parking Enterprise should include price controls so that parking fees don't skyrocket.

Eventually, all parties agreed to bring up the subject again at an informal City Council meeting.

• Next up was a discussion of funding from the Colorado Department of Transportation. Bach has made no secret of his outrage with CDOT, which he says has violated a Memorandum of Understanding and underpaid the city for road projects to the tune of $151 million over the past six years.

"That's a stunning revelation to me," Bach said. "... Going forward, more important, is what we're going to do about it."

Bach continues to doggedly pressure the state to cough up the dollars, which CDOT says are needed for rural areas. Despite the Springs having 12 percent of the state's population, the MOU guarantees it just 9.48 percent of state transportation dollars. And the city has only received about 4 percent for the past six years.

Meanwhile, Bach noted, "Denver gets its fair share of CDOT funding every year."

Part of the problem, according to the mayor, is that Les Gruen is the only transportation commissioner representing our area of about 800,000 people. Two other transportation commissioners, meanwhile, represent fewer than 200,000. The discrepancy is due to the fact that transportation districts have long gone without being reapportioned. Bach said he hopes to change that by appealing to the Legislature.

• Bach next addressed economic incentives, saying the city has put together a template of possible perks to show to new and existing primary employers. While all incentives — generally a break on certain city taxes — would need to be approved by Council, Bach said the template would give prospective employers a better idea of what might be available.

The Colorado Springs Airport has also been working to create a Commercial Aeronautical Zone that allow airlines to purchase parts, equipment and services tax-free.

Hente told the mayor that not all taxpayers would be happy to hear about the incentives: "There will be some critics who say the government shouldn't intervene," he said. "I disagree ... but you might catch some grief."

Bach responded by saying that the incentives were a temporary measure meant to alleviate high unemployment.

"It's an intermediate, jump-start strategy," he said.

• Next on the list was special events.

Since butting heads with City Council in spring over whether to offer city support to a bike race in its inaugural season, the mayor has been promising a larger discussion about special events.

The city offers in-kind support to many special events every year, in hopes of stimulating the economy. Support often includes closing off roadways and police support. The mayor hopes to meet with Council and tourism/event stakeholders on Sept. 24 to clarify the issue.

Events that will receive city support could be scheduled for the next three years at the meeting, though Bach says it's possible a pool of money will be set aside to fund events that haven't yet been planned.

• Finally, the mayor addressed Quality of Life Indicators, which are published in a report through the United Way.

He noted that the report found many pressing problems in Colorado Springs, such as high suicide rates, homelessness, a fast-aging population, infrastructure and transportation needs, rising obesity, and low high school graduation rates.

The mayor said he hoped Councilors would adopt two or three of the issues, and work with staff to "catalyze" solutions in the for-profit and nonprofit sector.

Bach, his wife Suzi, and Bennett are apparently already tackling the homeless issue to some degree. Suzi is researching solutions in other cities with the help of the El Pomar Foundation, and Bennett notes that he's long been in talks with AspenPointe about extending mental health services to the chronically homeless.

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