Local Government

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Nor'wood business district withdraws Scheels request

Posted By on Tue, Jun 25, 2019 at 11:26 AM

Scheels All Sports store will remain within a business improvement district, at least for now. - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy City of Colorado Springs
  • Scheels All Sports store will remain within a business improvement district, at least for now.

Interquest Marketplace LLC, an entity controlled by the region's biggest developer, Nor'wood Development Group, has backed out of its request to exclude Scheels All Sports store from the business improvement district Nor'wood also controls.

Russell Dykstra, an attorney in Denver who represents the district, sent an email notification to city officials at 4:15 p.m. June 24, saying the petition for exclusion from the Interquest North Business Improvement District (BID) submitted March 26 was withdrawn.

"The intent of withdrawing the petition at this time is to allow additional opportunity for the petitioners and the Interquest North Business Improvement District to further evaluate the overall financial structure of the project and the public improvements yet to be built and financed by the District and the impact of the exclusion," Dykstra wrote.

The last-minute withdrawal came less than 24 hours before City Council was to take up the exclusion on June 25, and after several stories by the Independent raised questions about the accuracy of the financial data submitted to the city on the BID's behalf. After those stories appeared, Dykstra wrote to the city saying a key figure presented in support of the exclusion was wrong.
Scheels, which plans to build a megastore in north Colorado Springs, was given a $16.2 million sales tax incentive spanning 25 years in February. The BID followed up in March asking that the retailer be excluded from the BID, thereby giving it a pass on the BID's 51-mill property tax levy. The BID also collects a 1.25 percent Public Improvement Fee on sales, and it's unclear whether Scheels will collect that PIF on behalf of the district. However, the city's $16.2 million incentive deal also allowed Scheels to collect its own PIF.

The Scheels store will be built on property now owned by entities controlled by Nor'wood, which is owned by long time developer David Jenkins.

Councilor Bill Murray: Let's take a closer look at that. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Councilor Bill Murray: Let's take a closer look at that.
Although the exclusion petition has been withdrawn, the issue regarding developer control of some taxing districts might get further scrutiny.

Councilor Bill Murray, who's out of town attending the National League of Cities, tells the Indy by phone he wants to know more about the Interquest BID and others.

"I'm calling for a review of all the BIDS," he says. "We want to see exactly what they [developers] have been doing with this money and the taxing authority we've given to them. The whole idea is this money is for public improvements. It's now being used as a financial mechanism to wheel and deal."

Tim Leonard owns Deepwater Point Co., a development management company that represents the two business in the BID that opposed the Scheels exclusion — BWR Investors LLC, owner and operator of the Burger King, and Riverside Restaurant Group LLC, owner of the Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen.

He's glad to see the item withdrawn.

"Withdrawal is prudent for the developer and Scheels, because an analysis has finally been done that shows it's more beneficial for Scheels to be included and have taxes reduced for everyone than it is to give corporate welfare to the largest retailer [Scheels] in the district," he says. "The property owners in the district are adamantly opposed to using district taxpayer money for the special benefit of a single retailer."

That analysis to which he refers, by the way, was conducted by Leonard, not the city.

Leonard also notes that the district now has a fund balance of $4 million. Should a project arise that the BID wants to fund — such as Scheels' parking lot — it has adequate funds to undertake the project without issuing new debt, which would require the City Council's permission. Spending the money on such a parking lot, however, does not require Council approval.

It's unclear if all district members support spending the district's money in that way.

We've left a message for Chris Jenkins, president of Nor'wood, seeking a comment and will update if and when we hear back.
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Monday, June 24, 2019

City Councilor: It's not honest to say Air Force Academy area is "blighted"

Posted By on Mon, Jun 24, 2019 at 5:36 PM

A rendering of the visitor center project and accompanying buildings. - COURTESY AIR FORCE ACADEMY
  • Courtesy Air Force Academy
  • A rendering of the visitor center project and accompanying buildings.
True North Commons Urban Renewal Area, some 88 acres surrounding the entrance to the Air Force Academy, promises to trigger billions of dollars in economic development as well as millions in tax dollars.

But one City Councilor asserted the area is far from blighted as required by the state's urban renewal statute.

The economic predictions came from city economic development officer Bob Cope during his pitch at City Council's June 24 work session where he outlined why the city should allow the developer to use city tax money to develop the project under urban renewal status.

The plan, by Blue and Silver Development Partners, calls for building a new visitors center, hotel, retail and office space as part of the city's City for Champions tourism venture being partially funded with state sales tax rebates. Other projects include a sports medicine venue at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, a downtown soccer stadium, a hockey arena on the Colorado College Campus and the Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame under construction in the downtown area.

Cope said the city would contribute $23.5 million in tax money to the project but would reap $49.7 million in taxes over a 25-year period. Calling it a "legacy anchor tourism project," Cope said it would add $2.6 billion in economic activity locally over 25 years, and bring more than 1,000 construction jobs and a like number of permanent jobs.
 
But Councilor Don Knight shot down the idea, saying the land fails to meet the definition of blighted, as required by statute. He added it's not honest to pretend that it does.

Noting his 26 years in the Air Force, Knight said the service follows three core values: "Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do."
Noting the first tenet, he said, "I just don’t see how with any integrity we can stand up and say this is a menace. I just can’t do that. This does not constitute the definition of a blighted area."

Moreover, Knight noted that "new revenue" for the city has appeared as a "tagline" in Cope's presentations for "at least a half dozen projects" in the last year. He also said the city's gaining an average of $1 million a year from the project doesn't warrant allowing it to be called an urban renewal area so developers can seize tax money to fund development costs.

"The loss of this doesn't mean the city is going to be going hungry," he said. "We have a lot of other projects. There's so many things about this that bother me."
A concept development plan for the project. - COURTESY BLUE AND SILVER DEVELOPMENT PARTNERS
  • Courtesy Blue and Silver Development Partners
  • A concept development plan for the project.
The state statute at issue says this in defining what constitutes a candidate property for urban renewal:
(1) "Agricultural land" means any one parcel of land or any two or more contiguous parcels of land that, regardless of the uses for which the land has been zoned, has been classified by the county assessor as agricultural land for purposes of the levying and collection of property tax pursuant to sections 39-1-102 (1.6) (a) and 39-1-103 (5) (a), C.R.S., at any time during the five-year period prior to the date of adoption of an urban renewal plan or any modification of such a plan.

(2) "Blighted area" means an area that, in its present condition and use and, by reason of the presence of at least four of the following factors, substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of the municipality, retards the provision of housing accommodations, or constitutes an economic or social liability, and is a menace to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare:

(a) Slum, deteriorated, or deteriorating structures;

(b) Predominance of defective or inadequate street layout;

(c) Faulty lot layout in relation to size, adequacy, accessibility, or usefulness;

(d) Unsanitary or unsafe conditions;

(e) Deterioration of site or other improvements;

(f) Unusual topography or inadequate public improvements or utilities;

(g) Defective or unusual conditions of title rendering the title nonmarketable;

(h) The existence of conditions that endanger life or property by fire or other causes;

(i) Buildings that are unsafe or unhealthy for persons to live or work in because of building code violations, dilapidation, deterioration, defective design, physical construction, or faulty or inadequate facilities;

(j) Environmental contamination of buildings or property.
The mayor's Chief of Staff Jeff Greene asked Knight if he would oppose the urban renewal designation based on whether the land is a menace or not, and Knight said, "yes," noting if that's allowed, "You can take the most pristine forest anywhere in the state and declare it an urban renewal area."

Council President Richard Skorman backed the developer, saying the land may not fit the normal description of blight, "But I feel like we need to do everything we can to make this happen, because the value is potentially tremendous."

Not only will the visitors center attract more tourists, Skorman said, but the hotels will draw meetings and conferences. "We’re talking about trying to make this the space capital of the United States. I think this is a piece of it, and I can tell you the people I’ve talked to, the professors at the Academy are excited to have their conferences next to the Academy."

He added, "I don’t want to be too negative. Let’s find out if urban renewal is possible.
I think we have to go into this with an open mind."

The developer Dan Schnepf, himself an Academy grad, took umbrage at Knight's remarks.

"I am modestly offended if you think this is not an honorable development," Schnepf said. "If this was a project by which we were going to define the statute, I’d be right there with you. I’m responding to a statute put in place in 1958 and used hundreds of times. I’ve looked at those blighted elements, and we meet at least four, maybe more. But I do respect your opinion. That’s an argument to have at the statute level, not here on this project."
Councilor Wayne Williams, who's a lawyer, also backed the developer. "Do I wish the Legislature had used a word other than blight? Sure. Within the wording of the law, this fits the requirement."

Greene then reminded Council of Mayor John Suthers' stance on the proposal. "The administration is very proud of this project," Greene said. "The mayor is very proud of this project. He has advocated for this project. The city needs all the revenue it can generate."

Councilor David Geislinger said he, too, struggles with the definition of urban renewal area, and asked Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Area director Jariah Walker, "Assuming we’re saying this is urban renewal to bulldoze these 88 acres, how is that going to change, if at all, the understanding of Colorado Springs of your group, as to what urban renewal is, going forward?
There are areas that would qualify for blight. I would be concerned if the URA said we’re now going to be focusing on these projects rather than those areas of town that are truly blighted."

Walker vowed the URA would "absolutely focus on those areas," and is "not just interested in pushing north or northeast."

Greene promised to obtain a legal analysis of the statute for Council, although Knight said he based his remarks on City Attorney Wynetta Massey's briefing to Council at a previous recent work session.
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Transit hub, nearly 20 years in the making, still just a vision

Posted By on Mon, Jun 24, 2019 at 5:06 PM

Looking northwest from the corner of Sahwatch and Cucharras streets, the preferred location for a new transit hub. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Looking northwest from the corner of Sahwatch and Cucharras streets, the preferred location for a new transit hub.

An update from city administration about building a new city transit hub drew strong words from City Council at its June 24 work session, with Councilor Tom Strand noting the Council has been toying with the project for nearly 20 years.

"We've spent enough heartbeats on this," he said. "We need to move forward."

And that very well might mean taking the property by eminent domain, several councilors said. Eminent domain is the process in which private property is taken at market value by a government entity to serve a public purpose.

Studies have concluded the top three choices, in order, are:

• Three quarters of the block bounded by Colorado Avenue, Sahwatch Street, Cucharras Street and Sierra Madre Stree.
• Three quarters of the block bounded by Cucharras, Weber Street, Vermijo Street and Nevada Avenue. (The Independent is located in this city block but is not part of the desired property.)
• Pueblo Avenue right-of-way between Nevada and Wahsatch Street.

The first choice, though, comes with a limiting caveat: The owner, shown on county property records as Supperstein Family Trust, doesn't want to sell but rather wants to pursue "a joint development project and wishes to retain ownership," the staff said in a written report for Council. "Under this approach, the City and the property owner would follow the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTAs) joint development requirements," it said.

As Mountain Metropolitan Transit manager Craig Blewitt told Council, under a normal public/private partnership, the government owns the property and engages a developer to help develop it. "This is the other way around," he said, noting that even if a deal could be reached, it would take two years to complete the hub terminal.

Blewitt said the next step should be for the city to get an appraisal of the property, but if the owner still isn't interested in selling, "Then we're probably looking at renovations to the existing terminal." The transit hub sits on the southwest corner of Nevada Avenue and Kiowa Street.

Several Council members made it clear they want to press forward with the top-ranked site.

"It seems to me the preferred site is the one that will enhance accessibility for those using the transit system," Councilor David Geislinger said. "Is there any thought about taking the next step and doing eminent domain?"

At that, Jeff Greene, Mayor John Suthers' chief of staff, jumped in. "The mayor has been very clear. He does not support [eminent domain]. We would assess the legal options and then look at other options that would provide a stop gap..."

Councilor Jill Gaebler noted the Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission on which she serves is "really really moving" forward, not only with a local rail line between cities, but also possibly luring the Amtrak's Southwest Chief, which travels from Chicago to Los Angeles, to come to Colorado Springs from Pueblo before heading south.

"I want Colorado Springs to be poised and ready," she said, adding that the preferred site is the only one that makes sense for accommodating Bustang, a commuter shuttle service that runs between Front Range cities, in pulling off and back on Interstate 25.

To which Strand said, "It just seems like we're paralyzed. Constituents don't think the current site is at all appropriate. Actually, it was a previous Council that started this. This is the eighth different time in 20 years [the city has studied a site for a new transit hub]."

Councilor Wayne Williams said although he's "not enamored" of the eminent domain process, it doesn't make sense to locate a transit hub east of Nevada, because it's too far away from a potential rail hub.

For Council President Richard Skorman, the issue is compelling. "This is a really important site that will determine the future of maybe millions of travelers over time," he said, noting several costly projects, including the $100-million Cimarron/I-25 interchange, anticipated a hub in that vicinity.

"It's an issue we've been talking about for decades," he said. "I'm not pleased. We were able to tell the landowner this is where we want to be, and we're sort of being held hostage. I think we need to look at eminent domain as a tool in the tool chest."

Greene subdued further debate by promising a new report in 30 days, but warned Council, "On property negotiations, be careful what you're stating publicly. It's a very sensitive process."

The Indy couldn't reach Supperstein Family Trust for a comment but will update if we hear back.
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Friday, June 21, 2019

Business district now admits Scheels sales figure "was wrong"

Posted By on Fri, Jun 21, 2019 at 3:08 PM

Aquariums are one attraction that appear in some Scheels stores. - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy city of Colorado Springs
  • Aquariums are one attraction that appear in some Scheels stores.

A low-ball estimate of annual sales expected from the proposed Scheels All Sports store in north Colorado Springs, "was wrong," says an attorney representing the Interquest North Business Improvement District (BID).

The Independent reported on June 14 that the BID, controlled by Nor'wood Development Group via seats on the board, submitted a document on May 16 that stated Scheels' annual sales would total $20.4 million. That's a third of the $60-million estimate previously provided to the city in support of a $16.2 million sales tax break for Scheels. City Council approved the incentive in February. The city also confirmed June 13 the $60 million is correct.

Three days after the Indy's blog post, Russell Dykstra, with Spencer Fane LLP law firm in Denver, wrote the city an email on behalf of the petitioner, Nor'wood — which is owned by developer David Jenkins — in which it corrected the figure.

"Of note, the prior information as to the impact of the Scheels store in relation to comparable commercial property in the Interquest North Business Improvement District was based on erroneous information (the projected annual sales amount was wrong) and should be disregarded," Dykstra wrote.

He then notes that Scheels stores "can do sales of $60 million a year or more," which would mean the BID would receive "$750,000+ per year from the PIF (public improvement fee, which is collected like a sales tax) alone."

Read the email here:

Two businesses oppose the exclusion, arguing that removing Scheels from the BID means Scheels wouldn't have to pay 51 mills in property taxes and the 1.25 percent PIF. Together, those levies would bring in roughly $1 million a year — an amount that the remaining BID members would have to pay.

Tim Leonard owns Deepwater Point Co., a development management company that represents the two opponents, BWR Investors LLC, owner and operator of the Burger King, and Riverside Restaurant Group LLC, owner of the Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen.

Both lie within the BID and oppose excluding Scheels.

Leonard notes in an outline provided to the Indy that if the BID continues to collect its mill levy and PIF, with Scheels in the district, it would receive $2.8 million a year toward payment of bond debt of $972,000 per year. (The BID has issued debt totaling $11.3 million that's earmarked for public improvements such as sidewalks.) He further notes the BID's fund balance this year would swell to $4.1 million.

But, Leonard also says, if the mill levy and PIF were lowered to 5 mills and 1 percent, respectively, the district still would collect ample funds, $1.25 million a year, to meet its debt payments.

"So the issue is not whether Scheels should be subsidized by all the smaller businesses," Leonard says, "but why does the Board not lower the mill levy as its tax base expands?"

Councilor Bill Murray: Council didn't know about opposition. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Councilor Bill Murray: Council didn't know about opposition.
Leonard has said his clients and other businesses in the BID were not notified of the exclusion request prior to a May 28 briefing by city staff to Council. According to a certificate of mailing recently submitted to the city, Spencer Fane mailed notices to all BID members on June 13.

That's two days after Council was originally slated to consider the exclusion request (June 11) but delayed it after receiving a June 6 letter from Leonard expressing opposition. Councilor Bill Murray has said Council wasn't told of any opposition until it received Leonard's letter.

Now, Council is poised to make a decision on the exclusion on June 25.

The BID is controlled by Nor'wood through seats on the board. Hence, Nor'wood controls issuing debt, which Nor'wood, in turn, has purchased through entities created by Jenkins and his son, Chris, president of Nor'wood. Those entities are Enterprise Fund No. 6 and Enterprise Fund No. 8. The Nor'wood-controlled board also sets the BID's property tax rate.

We reached out to Dykstra, inviting him to explain how the $20.4 million sales figure came to be submitted to the city in error, and asking him to comment on any part of the exclusion request he wishes. We'll circle back when we hear something.

We've invited Nor'wood and Scheels to comment a couple of times in recent days and never heard back.
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Deputy fired for alleged sexual assault is not charged

Posted By on Fri, Jun 21, 2019 at 1:00 PM

An El Paso County Sheriff’s Office deputy won’t be criminally charged in connection with an allegation of sexual assault, the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office announced June 20 on Twitter.

Deputy David Kwiecien was fired on May 21, a week after a May 13 notice of claim was submitted to the county.

According to that letter, from attorney Timothy Bussey who’s representing an unnamed female (her name is redacted from the claim letter), Kwiecien made contact with the woman in the early morning hours of Dec. 25, 2018, initiating an investigation to determine if she was intoxicated.
The deputy then cited her for DUI. After she finished giving a blood sample at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central, she was released into the care of her son, the letter says.

Later that night, the claim letter says, Kwiecien contacted the woman via text message and visited her at her residence, the letter says. “Deputy Kwiecien then visited [redacted] a second time at [redacted] residence,” the letter says. “During this second visit Deputy Kwiecien took advantage of his position as a law enforcement officer and his knowledge of [redacted] intoxicated state to sexually assault [redacted].”

There was another deputy on the initial DUI call, but the letter says it’s unknown to what degree, if any, he was involved in or aware of the incident. Kirby says the second deputy is not under investigation.

On Twitter, the DA’s Office said:

Following a thorough review of the events that occurred on Dec. 24-25, 2018 involving former El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Deputy David Kwiecien, the 4th Judicial D.A.’s Office has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to file criminal charges under Colorado law.
“While off-duty, Mr. Kwiecien engaged in inappropriate relations with a citizen he had arrested hours earlier for driving under the influence. An investigation has determined that the conduct occurred when the woman was no longer in custody and had returned to her home, and, while his actions were highly inappropriate and unprofessional, they do not rise to the level of criminal charges under Colorado law.

Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Jackie Kirby says via email, “We cannot comment on pending litigation. He was terminated from the Sheriff’s Office almost a month before the DA made their ruling.”

————ORIGINAL POST, 5:28 PM MAY 28, 2019—————-
sheriff_soffice.pamzubeck_1_copy.jpg
The El Paso County Sheriff's Office fired a deputy on May 21, a week after receiving a claim notice from a woman who states through her attorney that the deputy sexually assaulted her on Christmas Day last year, sheriff's spokesperson Jackie Kirby tells the Independent.

A notice of claim letter is usually the first step toward a lawsuit. The woman is seeking $10 million in damages.

The deputy in question, David Kwiecien, joined the department in 2016, Kirby says.

"I can tell you that the criminal investigation is in the DA's [District Attorney's] office's hands, and we're waiting for them to make a ruling [on whether criminal charges will be filed]," Kirby says.

According to the May 13 claim letter, from attorney Timothy Bussey, Kwiecien made contact with the woman, whose name is redacted from the claim letter, in the early morning hours of Dec. 25, 2018, initiating an investigation to determine if she was intoxicated.

The deputy then cited her for DUI. After she finished giving a blood sample at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central, she was released into the care of her son, the letter says.

Later that night, Kwiecien contacted the woman via text message and visited her at her residence, the letter says. "Deputy Kwiecien then visited [redacted] a second time at [redacted] residence," the letter says. "During this second visit Deputy Kwiecien took advantage of his position as a law enforcement officer and his knowledge of [redacted] intoxicated state to sexually assault [redacted]."

There was another deputy on the initial DUI call, but the  the letter says it's unknown to what degree, if any, he was involved in or aware of the incident. Kirby says the second deputy is not under investigation.

The Indy reached out to the DA's Office to inquire about the investigation and will circle back when and if we hear something.
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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Water sales falter for Colorado Springs Utilities amid wet spring

Posted By on Wed, Jun 19, 2019 at 3:41 PM

Heavy rains have filled gutters across the city this spring, much like this street as shown two years ago. It's since been the site of a storm drainage project to improve drainage. - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy City of Colorado Springs
  • Heavy rains have filled gutters across the city this spring, much like this street as shown two years ago. It's since been the site of a storm drainage project to improve drainage.
A damp spring that's pushed Colorado Springs above its normal rainfall total translates to about $3.4 million less in water sales for Colorado Springs Utilities through May this year compared to the same five months last year.

The dip in sales likely is related to customers curtailing irrigation of lawns, golf courses and other vegetation.

Last year, Utilities collected $64.7 million in water sales through May, compared to this year's $61.3 million.

The biggest gap between last year and this year came in May when Utilities' water revenue totaled $18.3 million compared to $23.3 million in May 2018.

Water consumption in May 2018 stood at 2.9 billion gallons, compared to 2 billion gallons in May this year.

Because Utilities forecasted sales through May 2019 at $18 million but brought in $18.3 million, "We were OK," says Utilities spokesperson Natalie Watts.

"In general," she says via email, "when we do forecasting we tend to [err] on the side of conservativeness because we don’t want to get ourselves into a financial hardship. This is especially true during the months of May and October because the weather can be so different during those two months from year to year. We try to build in a little bit of a cushion in case of a bad year."

Watts says Utilities projected $25 million in water revenue for June this year after receiving $29.6 million last year due to hot and dry weather.

However, already this month, about 1.5 inches of rain has fallen through June 18. That's brought the total precipitation so far this year to 6.85 inches, compared to 4.64 inches a year ago, according to the National Weather Service. (The 30-year average is 5.11 inches.)

Meantime, water consumption dropped correspondingly, from 2.1 billion gallons between June 1 through 18, 2018, to 1.4 billion gallons for the same period this year.
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City tries "gutter bins" to keep cigarette butts out of creek

Posted By on Wed, Jun 19, 2019 at 3:38 PM

"Gutter bins" are shaped like giant socks. - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy City of Colorado Springs
  • "Gutter bins" are shaped like giant socks.
To keep pollution out of waterways, city staff are thinking outside the box — and have their minds in the gutter.

In May, the city installed "gutter bins" in three downtown locations. The sock-like devices catch cigarette butts, pieces of Styrofoam coffee cups or whatever else people happen to discard that would otherwise flow down the gutter and, eventually, into the creek.

"The other day we pulled about 15 pounds out of one of them," says city stormwater specialist Jerry Cordova. "...We actually found a brand-new softball."

Cordova's team plans to try out the three bins for a while and possibly add them later in other parts of the city. The devices, manufactured by environmental technology company Frog Creek Partners, come with a price tag, but the bin lids are customizable — so companies who want to "sponsor" a gutter bin could have their names etched on the top, Cordova adds.

"This is one opportunity to [improve the water quality] without making a huge investment up front: Try it, see how it works and we can always scale this larger," he says.

Cordova also runs the Adopt-A-Waterway Program, which allows businesses and organizations to "adopt" a stretch of creek by keeping it clean in exchange for getting their name on a sign. And the city's Creek Week event draws hundreds of volunteers to clean up trash along Fountain Creek each fall.

While volunteers in those two programs can see the immediate difference that picking up trash for a day or two makes, Cordova points out that small pieces of litter accumulated over time can also harm the creek ecosystem.

The "gutter bin" lids are customizable. - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy City of Colorado Springs
  • The "gutter bin" lids are customizable.
When someone walking downtown sees a cigarette butt discarded on the sidewalk, they may think, "Oh it's just a cigarette butt," Cordova says.

"But think about all the health warnings that you see about cigarettes and the dangers of smoking. ... Well, all those toxins get stuck in that little filter, that cigarette butt — so when that gets into our water, it's been leaching those chemicals into the water."

What's more, he says, fish will often eat cigarette butts floating on the water, and water fowl nibble them up while pecking at the ground for food.

"It seems like something small, but little things can make big differences, positive or negative, and so that's why we wanted these filters to capture those little pieces that many people overlook," Cordova says.
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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Colorado lawmakers look to better protect Olympic athletes

Posted By on Tue, Jun 18, 2019 at 5:48 PM

Olympic mural at the Colorado Springs Airport. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Olympic mural at the Colorado Springs Airport.
The U.S. Olympic Committee appears headed for a a microscopic analysis by a blue-ribbon commission, if legislation introduced on June 18 finds its way into law.

Four Congress members, including two from Colorado, said in a release the House bill begins the process of reforming the Colorado Springs-based USOC in the wake of a cavalcade of allegations of sexual assault of young athletes by trainers and others and the revelation last year that senior-level Olympic committee officials had knowledge of those activities but failed to act to protect the athletes. (Former CEO Scott Blackmun resigned in February 2018.)

The most notorious case involved USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of multiple counts in 2018 and sentenced to prison.

The Colorado Congressional members — Diana DeGette, a Democrat, and Doug Lamborn, a Republican — joined Reps. Susan Brooks, R-Indiana, and Ben McAdams, D-Utah, in calling for an overhaul of the organization.

"No amount of gold medals are worth putting the health and safety of our athletes at risk," said DeGette in a news release. She chairs the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations panel that's looking into the USOC's handling of sexual abuse cases. "When the very body that Congress created to care for our athletes becomes more concerned about winning, and protecting a brand, than the athletes themselves, it's time for change."

Likewise, Lamborn, whose district includes the USOC headquarters, said in the release, "It is vital that we protect our athletes so that the Olympic movement can be healthy and successful. This bill will strengthen the integrity of the U.S. Olympic Committee by ensuring that athletes are better protected. Our bipartisan proposal provides a framework for Congress to investigate the true sources of these problems and how to fix them."

The bill, called the Strengthening U.S. Olympics Act, would require Congress to appoint a 16-member commission that includes at least eight Olympic or Paralympic athletes to study how the USOC currently operates and provide recommendations aimed at reforming its governing structure to better protect the nation's top athletes, the release said.

The panel would evaluate:

• How responsive the national governing bodies of each Olympic sports are to its athletes.

• Whether the U.S. Center for SafeSport has the funding and staff it needs to effectively respond to any future reports of harassment and sexual assault.

• The diversity of the USOC's board members, its finances and whether it's achieving its own stated goals.

• Participation in amateur athletics by women, disabled individuals and minorities.

• The ongoing efforts by the USOC to recruit Olympics and Paralympics to be held in the U.S.

The panel would have nine months to conduct its work, including public hearings, and provide a written report.

Congress gave the USOC authority to govern all Olympic-related athletic activity in the U.S. in 1978. Since the Nassar scandal first broke, and in light of the more recent revelations that USOC officials knew about the allegations but failed to act, dozens of former Olympic athletes and USOC officials have been calling on Congress to step in and take action to reform the organization, the release said.
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Friday, June 14, 2019

Scheels: Will annual sales be $60 million or a third that amount?

Posted By on Fri, Jun 14, 2019 at 5:28 PM

COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS POWER POINT BRIEFING
  • Courtesy City of Colorado Springs Power Point briefing
Back on February 11, city staff briefed City Council on a proposal to grant Scheels All Sports, a mega sports store that will feature a Ferris wheel, the biggest tax incentive for a retailer in the city's history.

The proposal called for giving Scheels $16.2 million over 25 years via reducing the city general fund sales tax by half, and allowing Scheels to collect 1 percent on sales for a Public Improvement Fee and pocket that money. Read the details here.

In that presentation, city Economic Development Officer Bob Cope noted Scheels, to be located in the Interquest Business Improvement District in north Colorado Springs, would bring the city $53 million in net new revenue over 25 years.

He also presented a slide that showed several economic data points, including that the retailer would rack up $60 million in estimated annual sales.

But now, it appears that Scheels may only bring in around $20 million in annual sales — one-third of the quote given to Council — based on the retailer's own estimates. Initially a higher estimate wowed Council, making an incentive package look like a good deal. This lower estimate, however, comes at a time when the Scheels developer is looking to back out of an obligation that grows with its profits.

One slide from a Power Point presentation to City Council on Feb. 11, 2019. - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy city of Colorado Springs
  • One slide from a Power Point presentation to City Council on Feb. 11, 2019.

Back on February 26, Council saw the package as a good deal and approved it on a vote of 7-2 with Councilors Andy Pico and Bill Murray dissenting.

Clicking forward to May 28, Council learned that Nor'wood Development Group, which owns the land where Scheels will be built, requested that Council exclude Scheels from the Interquest North Business Improvement District (BID), which is controlled by Nor'wood through board seats.

Council wasn't told, however, that at least two businesses located in the BID opposed the exclusion, because that would mean one less business to contribute toward paying the debt incurred to install public infrastructure, such as sidewalks. Read about that request here. The BID is supported by a 51-mill property tax and by a Public Improvement Fee of 1.25 percent on sales.

Although Council was slated to vote on the exclusion request on June 11, Nor'wood requested a delay until June 25 after the Independent reported on the opposition.

In support of the exclusion, Nor'wood submitted several documents, among them this one-pager showing tax computations based on "Scheel's [sic] Estimates." (AV is assessed value; PIF is Public Improvement Fee charged by the BID, and Gross PPTx revenue is property tax revenue for the BID.)
screen_shot_2019-06-14_at_3.41.04_pm.png

Notice the $20.4 million annual sales figure.

We asked Cope about that. In an email, Cope says he's "very comfortable" with the city's $60 million estimate, and notes he hadn't seen the BID document cited above until the Indy provided it to him.

"It is my understanding that the $20.4 million annual sales projection was an extremely conservative estimate for the purposes of that particular document," Cope writes.

It's impossible to know why Nor'wood chose such an estimate for Scheels' annual sales figure, because Nor'wood president Chris Jenkins hasn't gotten back in response to two emails from the Indy over the last nine days.

But based on Nor'wood's computation, other members of the BID would lose out on $448,800 in revenue ($193,800 in property tax and $255,000 in PIF tax) each year to help pay off the BID's $11.3 million debt.

If the PIF total is computed based on the $60 million figure, it would amount to $750,000, bringing the total not collected by the BID from Scheels to $943,800 a year if the retailer is excluded from the BID.

Councilor Murray says this in an email regarding the Scheels situation:

The city over estimates its value to the city and caveats it with the threat they would move to Fountain, and the developer underestimates in order to minimize its effect on the BID (which everyone else would be required to pay in the district).
(1) the city’s estimates came directly from Scheels (this included over 50% out of area sales).
(2) Jenkins’ figures are being used to sway Council, in favor, of a reduction in Scheels' exposure to the Bid.
(3) The Council’s conundrum is that we have no method of verifying any of these figures but can only trust those given by the various parties.
(4) It's rare that we get to compare and contrast. In this case, they are asking for two separate incentive packages, which demonstrated the need to vary the figures to support each position. 

The Indy also reached out to Scheels to clarify what figure is most accurate and haven't heard back. We'll update if and when we hear something.
 
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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Flying W Ranch fencing draws protests

Posted By on Thu, Jun 13, 2019 at 3:27 PM

The Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed the Flying W Ranch in 2012. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • The Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed the Flying W Ranch in 2012.
UPDATE:
The Colorado Springs Planning Commission voted unanimously on June 20 to deny the appeal, clearing the way for the fence project, unless someone appeals the commission's ruling to City Council. Planning Commission member Scott Hente recused himself from the discussion and the vote. Hente lives in the area adjacent to Flying W. Ranch.

——————-ORIGINAL POST 3:27 P.M. THURSDAY, JUNE 13, 2019—————————

The Flying W Ranch wants to install a 10-foot-tall fence around 137 acres of its more than 1,400 acres to keep wildlife out, but some neighbors are pushing back.

The city approved the fence administratively, but a neighbor, James Berdon, appealed to the Planning Commission on May 30, which will take up the matter on June 20 at City Hall, 107 N. Nevada Ave. The meeting begins at 8:30 a.m.

The Flying W, a tourist attraction for decades — featuring a western village and evening meal served with cowboy music from the Flying W Wranglers, saw 19 of its 20 buildings and most of the site's vegetation destroyed by the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012.

Since then, it's never reopened. But the fence project signals renewed efforts to resurrect the business.

General manager Aaron Winter tells the Independent he's planning a June 29 ground-breaking ceremony that will be announced officially soon. The chuckwagon dinner venue is slated to open for Memorial Day 2020, he says.
Efforts to revegetate the Flying W property over the years included this event in November 2012. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Efforts to revegetate the Flying W property over the years included this event in November 2012.
Neighbors became aware of the fence plan when they noticed posts being erected a few months ago. A check with the city proved a building permit was needed, but the ranch had not obtained one, city planning staff says in a report.

Because the fence will exceed seven feet, a site plan was required, which the ranch submitted. As well, the city's zoning code requires all fences over six feet tall to be setback from the property line, in this case by 10 feet.

The fence will consist of posts and wire fencing.

From the city's staff report:
It has been explained that the 10-foot fence is required to aid in the revegetation efforts occurring on the Ranch. With the depletion of vegetation from the fire, the Ranch is replanting trees and revegetating to assist with property stabilization. This has proven difficult with the amount of wildlife in the area. The fence is designed to provide mitigation of wildlife and allow for better revegetation efforts. The fence will also serve as a safety measure for the overall agricultural and ranching operations.
But several neighbors say the fence is too large and unsightly.

"In the past, the Flying W has utilized the parcels for grazing cattle; and residents want to see the cattle return," wrote the appellant Berdon, who lives near the ranch on Wilson Road. "For six decades the cattle were contained by 4-foot tall ... posts with 4-strand barbed wire. This fence (and gates) survived the fire (albeit, in need of repair) and is more than 100 feet from the
parcel boundaries along Mountain Shadows. Since the Flying W has operated without the Wildlife Barrier for so long, there appears no need for it to be so close to the neighbors."

Another neighbor Karla Warneke, who's lived in the area for 16 years, submitted a statement against the fence, noting, "The natural aesthetic is what appeals to me. I fear the homes bordering the fence will depreciate. I also believe the fence will take away from the natural surroundings we all love."

Steve Brinkman, who's lived in that area for 32 years, wrote a letter to city planners saying he's "vehemently opposed"  to the fence, which he labeled "a huge eyesore."

Referring to a scar on a foothills mountain left from rock mining, Brinkman writes, "The huge scar (the mine) just north of our neighborhood is a huge sign that our city has let a lot of really
stupid things happen to our environment. This would be yet another example of our irresponsibility as a city."

Winter, with Flying W, says the fence is imperative to keeping wildlife out of the premises to prevent damage to the recovering vegetation.

"Wildlife has been detrimental to the efforts in revegetating the landscape," he says, noting the biggest problem is deer. "We've planted 10,000 different trees, and a lot of those have been decimated by wildlife as well as some seeding."
The yellow line shows where the fence would be built. - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy City of Colorado Springs
  • The yellow line shows where the fence would be built.
Another reason to keep wildlife at bay rests with plans to reintroduce animal attractions on the property, Winter says. He also notes that other local attractions use a similar fence design, including the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, The Broadmoor golf courses and the Colorado Springs Airport.

The fence posts will stand from 20 to 25 feet apart, he says, with woven wire between and two strands of wire on top. But the wire will not be barbed or razor wire, Winter says.

If the Planning Commission approves the fence, opponents could appeal to City Council, which would have the final say.

Read the staff report on the fence appeal:
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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

City Council eyes collaboration, communication, safety in 2020-2024 strategic plan

Posted By on Tue, Jun 11, 2019 at 9:19 AM

City Council, from left: Don Knight, David Geislinger, Tom Strand, Yolanda Avila and her dog Puma, Richard Skorman, Bill Murray, Jill Gaebler, Andy Pico, and Wayne Williams. - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy City of Colorado Springs
  • City Council, from left: Don Knight, David Geislinger, Tom Strand, Yolanda Avila and her dog Puma, Richard Skorman, Bill Murray, Jill Gaebler, Andy Pico, and Wayne Williams.
Making an overview plan can set the course for a business, individual or even a government.

Which is why the City Charter requires City Council to adopt a strategic plan.

On June 10, Council briefly discussed the newest plan, which will guide the city from 2020 to 2024.

The plan has these four primary goals:

• Regional collaboration
• Communication
• Safe and resilient communities
• PlanCOS (The city's comprehensive plan)

Councilor Jill Gaebler praised the draft version of the plan, noting that getting to this point worked better than last year, notably because a specific committee comprised of several Council members and staff met several times since January.

"The Charter clearly states the Council is supposed to create a strategic plan for the future of the city," she said during the work session. "I think this plan is really good."

Councilor Bill Murray took issue with the plan failing to include a better way of communicating with the executive branch (i.e., the mayor), to prevent the Council from being blindsided with a topic for which it's not been given adequate information.

"The overarching concern I’ve always had is, we need a more strategic viewpoint of how we communicate with the executive branch to help us make better and more informed decisions," he said.

Councilor Tom Strand questioned whether the plan has "measurables." For example, one regional collaboration goal is to increase coordination between the city and Colorado Springs Utilities, but there's no quantifiable measuring stick with which to mark success or failure, he noted.

Here's another one that nobody mentioned, but seems to fall into the category of Strand's concern. Under the heading of safe and resilient communities, there's no mention of police or fire by name. Rather, it states: "Support Public Safety initiatives through funding and the annual budget process."

It's worth noting that the Springs Police Department has reported sluggish response times to the highest priority calls for years, at around 12 to 13 minutes. If someone's breaking down your front door, that seems like an awfully long time. The department is also having difficulty keeping the ranks filled, much less adding officers on the streets.

Moreover, the Fire Department's responses haven't been as speedy as its own standards require.

Strand's concern also might apply to this goal: "Increase public awareness and encourage legislation that proactively supports issues of affordable housing and homelessness." How does Council measure its success on that one?

In any event, the Strategic Plan will see more discussion on June 25 when Council plans to apply its stamp of approval.

Read the plan:
1. Regional Collaboration Partner with local governments and regional agencies in order to share share knowledge and increase efficiencies in the Pikes Peak Region
a. Conduct an annual meeting with County Commissioners, and quarterly meetings between City Council and County Commissioner leadership
b. Increase coordination between the City of Colorado Springs and Colorado Springs Utilities including public Works and Streets projects
c. Engage with military installations through community opportunities such as Military Affairs Council with the Chamber of Commerce and establish a Council Member as the military affairs liaison
d. Organize an annual meet and greet program with regional municipal partners including Manitou, Fountain, Pueblo, Monument, etc.

2. Communication (Increase communication with constituents at all levels of interaction in order to promote a culture of civic engagement)
a. Develop a Constituent Response Specialist position to increase responsiveness and consistency in public messaging
b. Increase methods of communication to constituents through opportunities such as town halls, email announcements, social media messaging, etc.
c. Develop a Civics 101 training for new City employees to explain the role of City Council, the legislative process and methods of civic engagement
d. Increase the value of Boards and Commissions with an emphasis on action items and reporting requirements to City Council

3. Safe and Resilient Communities (Identify legislative opportunities to enhance long range objectives with meaningful impacts)
a. Support the City’s financial resiliency through work with Executive staff to develop a budgetary resiliency plan and associated metrics
b. Support Public Safety initiatives through funding and the annual budget process
c. Encourage connectivity across the city through innovative approaches to transportation solutions
d. Increase public awareness and encourage legislation that proactively supports issues of affordable housing and homelessness e. Increase public awareness and support around issues of the Urban Tree Canopy and Wildland Urban Interface

4. Plan COS (Facilitate the implementation of the City’s Comprehensive Plan, PlanCOS)
a. Support hiring of a Planning and Land Use consultant to review and provide recommendations on City Code Chapter 7
b. Actively participate in thoughtful discussion and drafting of legislation related to ADU’s and STR’s [accessory dwelling unit and short-term rentals]
c. Incentivize developers to build in underserved areas of Colorado springs, such as the Southeast, and support general infill policies and programs through development of URA criteria
d. Work with the Planning Department to develop a more complete and comprehensive understanding of the processes of Special Districts, including GIS map visualizations and debt issuance overview   
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Friday, June 7, 2019

Businesses object to proposed property tax break for Scheels All Sports

Posted By on Fri, Jun 7, 2019 at 5:15 PM

Scheels could end up with another big tax break. - COURTESY CITY POWER POINT PRESENTATION
  • Courtesy city Power Point presentation
  • Scheels could end up with another big tax break.

UPDATE: On June 11, City Council postponed consideration of excluding Scheels from the Interquest North Business Improvement District (BID) at the request of the applicant, the BID, which is controlled by Nor'wood Development Group. Council President Richard Skorman tells the Independent that the developer asked for time to meet with the opponents of the exclusion and "resolve the issues."

Council will take up the item at its June 25 meeting.

———————-ORIGINAL POST 5:15 P.M. FRIDAY, JUNE 7, 2019——————————-

Two property owners in the Interquest North Business Improvement District (BID), controlled by Nor'wood Development Group, oppose excluding mega-store Scheels All Sports from the district, saying it's not fair to force other members of the district to pick up the tab for improvements from which Scheels will benefit.

The opposition arises just days before City Council is slated, on June 11, to consider a request by Nor'wood to exclude the 3.85 acres from the BID as a consent item. Consent items are lumped together for a aggregate vote of Council without discussion.

Councilor David Geislinger says he needs more information before making a decision. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Councilor David Geislinger says he needs more information before making a decision.
However, Councilors Bill Murray and David Geislinger say they'll ask to pull the item off the consent calendar for a full Council discussion.

"I want to go through the reasons for, and objections to, this request before committing," Geislinger tells the Independent via email.

Murray says Council wasn't told of opposition until it received a June 6 letter from Tim Leonard, who represents BWR Investors LLC, owner and operator of the Burger King, and Riverside Restaurant Group LLC, owner of the Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen, both in the BID.

"The council was assured by the city and the developer there were no objections," Murray says in an email. "I will be pulling it from consent on Tues[day] and including this letter. The budget committee raised these issues. We were told there were none."

Leonard says in an interview it's a little hard to raise objections to a proposal his clients knew nothing about until June 3, although both are members of the BID and the exclusion petition was submitted to the city on April 2.

The BID is located north of Interquest Parkway and west of Voyager Parkway, an area which is under development by Nor'wood, owned by David Jenkins, the region's biggest developer.

A groundbreaking event was held on June 5.
Council, at the behest of Mayor John Suthers' office, already approved a $16.2 million sales tax break for the retailer in February.

Now, Nor'wood is asking that the property where Scheels will be built be relieved of property taxes associated with the BID.
Councilor Bill Murray says Council wasn't told about opposition before getting a letter from two businesses who are against the exclusion. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Councilor Bill Murray says Council wasn't told about opposition before getting a letter from two businesses who are against the exclusion.
The BID is controlled by Nor'wood through seats on the board. Hence, Nor'wood controlled issuance of bonds to pay for public improvements, such as streets and sidewalks, and also purchased those bonds through entities controlled by Jenkins and his son, Chris. In other words, Nor'wood created the district, runs the district, sets the property tax mill levy, receives the property tax money, contracts with itself to do improvements, has issued roughly $11.3 million in debt, and purchased that debt, which the district (controlled by Nor'wood) will repay to Nor'wood.

According to city documents, bonds issued in 2010 have an interest rate of 8.5 percent, and additional bonds issued in 2016 have an interest rate of 6.5 percent. The BID, controlled by Jenkins, has certified the maximum allowable debt service mill levy of 50 mills, along with proceeds from a 1.25-percent Public Improvement Fee (PIF) collected on all sales. The BID also levies 1 mill for operations and administration.

Nor'wood currently owns the property where Scheels will be built, but Scheels officials have estimated it will cost $84 million for land, the building, furniture and equipment for its new Colorado Springs store.

Leonard says all of Nor'wood's involvement in setting up and running the BID is legal, but the lack of transparency troubles his clients.

In a summary to Council for its May 28 meeting, at which the exclusion request was explained, city staff wrote that the petitioner assured the property would "continue to contribute sufficiently to meeting the financial obligations associated with this BID" through the PIF tax.

Staff also wrote, "An e-mail from this BID’s counsel, describing this justification, is attached."

But there was no such email available to the public among the backup materials for the agenda item online. Moreover, a PowerPoint presentation about the exclusion contained no financial analysis as to how much property tax money would be essentially waived for Scheels.
This is the only mention of a property tax break for Scheels All Sports contained in a city Power Point presentation given to City Council on May 28. The break will amount to millions of dollars over time, one opponent says. - CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • City of Colorado Springs
  • This is the only mention of a property tax break for Scheels All Sports contained in a city Power Point presentation given to City Council on May 28. The break will amount to millions of dollars over time, one opponent says.
The recommendation from city staff contained in backup materials states, "All comments received have been in support and/or with no stated concerns."

But Leonard's clients have many concerns. Leonard says that tax break for Scheels will have to be made up by the remaining dozen or so property owners within the BID, none of whom received notice of Nor'wood's exclusion request.

"Without question, we should have been able to get notice, have a discussion, see all the financials," Leonard says. "This has nothing to do with Scheels as a retailer. We want [more customer] traffic. We want retailing, density, all those things. The only thing is, after the infrastructure is built, all the bonds need to be paid for by an expanding tax base."

By giving Nor'wood/Scheels a pass on property taxes, the others will have to make up that lost revenue, Leonard says. The Cheddar's property is billed about $24,500 a year in taxes for the BID. The Burger King BID bill is roughly $10,800 a year.

Leonard says the exclusion would give Scheels a multi-million-dollar tax break over two to three decades. He notes the proposal calls for excluding the Scheels building but not the parking lot, meaning the BID's revenues, paid by others, would fund construction of the Scheels parking lot, while Scheels pays nothing to the BID for its building.

"It's pretty unprecedented that a BID can give an incentive to one of its landowners without informing its landowners," he adds. "I think what is needed is more disclosure. We are now going to be far more engaged with our district, knowing that our district board members are also landowners, who are also the people responsible for construction of roads, issuing the bonds, even buying the bonds. I've never seen this where the board is giving an economic incentive at the cost of other members."

Asked to comment on the proposal, mayor's spokesperson Jamie Fabos says in an email, "The Mayor has no position on the matter." Mayor John Suthers backed the $16.2 million sales tax incentive for Scheels.

Chris Jenkins didn't respond to an email seeking comment about the exclusion request. The Indy left a phone message for Scheels and will update when we hear back.

Here's Leonard's letter to City Council:
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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Coroner's report: opioids still claiming dozens of lives

Posted By on Wed, Jun 5, 2019 at 4:40 PM

El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly issues annual reports to help the community cope with patterns and trends. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly issues annual reports to help the community cope with patterns and trends.
UPDATE:
Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly tells the Indy that his annual report is "like taking the 'vital signs' of our community."

"It informs our citizens, public health officials, media, and leaders of what is threatening the health and safety of our citizens and gives us focus and priority on what we can do better," he writes in an email.

Asked what the key takeaways from this report point out to us, he says:

1) Our increasing motor vehicle deaths and in particular those involving pedestrians who are often homeless who are struck by vehicles.

2) Our decreasing prescription opioid deaths highlighting progress by our medical community and public health officials.

3) Decreased teen suicide numbers showing progress on that very important front.

4) Large numbers (8) of infant deaths occurring in unsafe sleep environments which are 100% preventable.

——————-ORIGINAL POST 4:40 P.M. WEDNESDAY, JUNE 5, 2019—————————

Once again, dozens of people died from opioids in El Paso County last year, although the carnage slacked off from the prior year, according to a new report issued by County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly.

In 2017, 147 people died from drug-related accidental deaths, compared to 133 in 2018. Opioids claimed 78 lives last year, compared to 92 the year before. But fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid, is on the ascent, taking nine lives in 2018, whereas that drug was a factor in only five deaths in 2017.

More observations in Kelly's report:

• 12 percent of the medication used in overdose deaths was prescribed by the decedent's physician.
• 74 percent of the accidental drug deaths were male.
• 70 percent of those who died of drug-related deaths had a history of substance abuse or addiction.
• 23 percent had a known history of mental illness.
• 60 percent of the accidental opioid deaths were from heroin.

As for homicides, 56 people died by another's hand in 2018, compared to 42 in 2017; most — 41 — were killed with a firearm. Other causes were blunt force, sharp objects and restraint.

Firearms also were a factor in 80 of the 152 suicide deaths last year, the report shows.

A new feature of Kelly's report shines the spotlight on homeless deaths, which the Indy showcased in this report about Calvin Reeves' January 22 death at a city bus stop.

The 2018 report says 61 people died last year while homeless, which Kelly defined as sleeping on the streets, in a tent, vehicle or shelter, couch surfing or squatting, in a transitional living program or living temporarily in a motel. Of those who died, 82 percent were males, and their average age was 49. Drug intoxication led the list of causes, followed by being a pedestrian struck by a vehicle.

If there's a bright side, it might be found on page 18 where Kelly reports that some of the deaths he investigated translated to life for others. Twenty donors from El Paso County had 65 organs recovered for transplantation into others.

See how the report compares to last year's numbers by checking out our previous report here.

Also, we published maps Kelly devised showing how opioid deaths have infiltrated all sections of the city.

We've reached out to Kelly for comments about his latest report and will circle back when we hear from him.

Here's the latest report by Kelly:

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Friday, May 31, 2019

City Council approves Maverik gas station next to Cheyenne Creek

Posted By on Fri, May 31, 2019 at 4:53 PM

Maverik’s Fillmore Street location opened in 2018. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Maverik’s Fillmore Street location opened in 2018.
City Council voted unanimously May 28 to approve a gas station and convenience store in a streamside overlay zone, despite protests from Ivywild residents over traffic and environmental concerns.


The project, which will be Maverik's third location in Colorado Springs, was approved by the Planning Commission in April at the recommendation of staff. City Council's approval was also required because the company had to apply for a variance to vacate an existing alleyway on the project site at Tejon Street and Motor Way.

But the more contentious issue to residents was another variance allowing a gas station next to Cheyenne Creek, in a streamside overlay zone where city code explicitly prohibits convenience stores with fuel sales.

At the City Council meeting, city planner Matt Fitzsimmons defended the project, explaining that none of the gas station components would be inside the streamside buffer zone 70 feet from the creek.

As part of the site itself falls within that buffer, the entire property is also designated as streamside overlay. That designation will require Maverik to make improvements along the creek by adding a trail and vegetation.

Maverik representatives argued that their state-of-the-art system for trapping runoff and fuel spills, including detention basins and triple-walled pipes, would keep contaminants out of the water. They also cited a traffic study that found most customers would come from adjacent streets, and wouldn't go out of their way to visit the store — meaning traffic wasn't likely to increase by much.

But for Valerie Fix and her son, Alexander Fix, both of whom testified at the meeting, those statements were dubious.

"Though they assure us they have the best of facilities and detention basins, even the best of detention basins could not stand up to a flood," Alexander Fix said, pointing out that the property is downhill from the rest of the neighborhood. He added that the city should wait until a different traffic study for the area is finished before approving new development.

"I support infill and smart development in our communities. This is just the wrong thing in the wrong location," Valerie Fix said. She recounted a recent episode in which one of Maverik's underground fuel tanks at its store in Lander, Wyoming, leaked into the Popo Agie River. The company was ordered to make repairs and pay $1 million on top of the $1 million provided by a financial assurance account, K2 Radio reported in April.

Landscape architect Chis Lieber countered that the improvements Maverik has made to its system since then would prevent such a situation from occurring in Colorado Springs.

While the Fixes were the only two people who testified against the project at the meeting, Fitzsimmons said he received 30 letters from residents opposing the project, and just three letters from people supporting it.

Eric Wyatt, who said he had lived in the area for 50 years and owned 13 local properties, argued in defense of the Maverik store.

"Going inside of the Kum 'n' Go convenience store and the Maverik convenience stores, I really notice the Maverik stores are a lot nicer," Wyatt said. "... I am for Maverik and what they’re doing there. I think they’re doing a first-class job, and I say a win-win."

In the end, city councilors also sided with the developers.

"I’m not crazy about the notion of a national chain, another national chain store in an area that’s kind of a strip for that," Council President Richard Skorman said. "That whole South Nevada corridor is almost all national chains, and I’m not crazy about the notion of another one, but that’s not my criteria to be able to weigh in on this."

Councilor Bill Murray said he was more worried about fuel leaks with gas stations that use older equipment than Maverik stores, which use newer fuel infrastructure.

"Make a mistake, you’re going to pay big time," he added. "And we all know that. So I’m going to support it."

Editor's note: The original version of this web story didn't include the proposed Maverik gas station's location at Tejon Street and Motor Way.
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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

District judge: Coroner wrongfully withheld autopsy reports in deputy's death

Posted By on Wed, May 29, 2019 at 5:27 PM

The media prevailed in a lawsuit on May 29 over then-El Paso County Coroner Robert Bux's  refusal to release autopsy reports for Deputy Micah Flick and suspect Manuel Zetina last year.

Micah Flick was killed in a gun battle on Feb. 5, 2018. - COURTESY EL PASO COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
  • Courtesy El Paso County Sheriff's Office
  • Micah Flick was killed in a gun battle on Feb. 5, 2018.
District Judge Michael McHenry awarded attorney fees that are approaching $30,000 for the Independent, Gazette and other local media, said media attorney Steve Zansberg of Denver.

"The media's first responsibility is to our readers, which includes shining a light on government activities," Indy Publisher Amy Sweet said. "The Indy will always fight for the public's right to know."

The case stems from the fatal shooting of Flick by Zetina during a Feb. 5, 2018, attempted take-down of the suspected auto theft at an apartment complex at Murray Boulevard and Galley Road. Three other officers also were injured by Zetina, who also shot bystander Thomas Villanueva, 29, who was left paralyzed from the chest down and has filed a lawsuit against various agencies seeking millions of dollars in damages.

After the Indy and Gazette sought the autopsy reports on several occasions following the shooting and were denied access, Bux filed a petition with the court seeking to withhold the reports citing several reasons, including the emotional impact their release would have on Flick's family.

The Independent and the Gazette hired Zansberg (other media outlets — KDVR, KUSA-TV, KOAA, KKTV, and Fox21 —  joined the fight shortly after), who argued the law requires a coroner to cite substantial injury to the public interest under a unique and extraordinary set of circumstances as a basis for withholding the reports.
Thomas Villanueva and his friends and family protested outside the Coroner's Office on Aug. 15, 2018, demanding the autopsy reports be released. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Thomas Villanueva and his friends and family protested outside the Coroner's Office on Aug. 15, 2018, demanding the autopsy reports be released.
In response, Bux eventually released the reports on September 7 after the District Attorney's Office released its report on August 21 and Colorado Springs Police Department, which investigated the shooting, released its report on September 5.

Zansberg tells the Indy that, had the county not challenged the media's attorney fees, the bill might not have exceeded $1,500. But the media sought to recover its fees, triggering two protracted court hearings that ran up the attorney bill to more than $20,000.

It's unclear whether the county will appeal the judge's ruling.

“El Paso County has a long and proud tradition of transparency. When making the decision to withhold Deputy Flick’s and Mr. Zetina’s autopsy reports, the Coroner’s Office consulted with the Flick family, the Colorado Springs Police Department, the El Paso County Sheriff, and the District Attorney," an email from El Paso County Spokesperson Ryan Parsell stated."The County weighed the law along with the integrity of the investigation with the media and the public’s desire for more information.

"We made the decision to litigate in good faith, and while we respect the court’s opinion, we are considering our next legal steps.”

Recapping Judge McHenry's ruling, Zansberg says, "He basically said that the coroner's decision to withhold these two autopsy reports in their totality on July 12 was not proper, particularly because all the officers involved in the incident had already been interviewed and videotaped during those interviews way back on February 8 and 9."

McHenry also noted he agreed with the media's argument that Bux "had been receiving erroneous advice about what standard needs to be met to withhold autopsy reports," Zansberg says.

While the case won't have binding authority on future cases, Zansberg noted it's a welcome finding, especially in light of the fact that Bux had repeatedly withheld autopsy reports attached to criminal cases over the past year, leading the Gazette to fight for the reports in court over and over. He noted that means that Bux's denial of access to the public reports was "a recurring practice."

Bux retired recently and Dr. Leon Kelly was elected as county coroner in November.
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