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Jan with a plan 

City Councilor wants voters to raise property tax by a first step of 6 mills

You've probably heard by now that Vice Mayor Larry Small wants to raise your property tax from the current 4.944 mills to 34 mills. But there's one thing the Gazette and other media outlets neglected to tell you: He won't try to put that measure on the ballot until November 2010, at the earliest. And at that point, the input of colleagues and citizens may have altered it drastically.

It's City Councilor Jan Martin, not Small, who's hoping to ask you for a tax increase this November.

"I keep hearing from people: 'What can we do?' 'What's the solution?' 'How can we help?'" Martin says. "I care too much about the city of Colorado Springs not to at least offer an option. Because the consequences of what our city will look like next year are dire."

Small says Martin's plan eventually will raise around the same amount of money — about $44 million a year at full implementation — as his more elaborate plan, which in addition to raising the property-tax levy to 34 mills, would lower the city's sales tax and eliminate the business personal property tax as well as the various "silo" taxes such as Trails, Open Space and Parks and the Public Safety Sales Tax.

By contrast, Martin simply wants to raise property tax by 10 mills over a five-year span and eliminate the business personal property tax, the latter likely happening right after the November 2009 election.

She envisions the tax increase phasing in over five years, rising by 6 mills in 2010 and one mill each of the following four years. Taking into account an expiring mill levy, the increases would mean a total city property tax of 14.279 mills by 2014.

Here's what that means: In 2009, a typical School District 11 home assessed at $262,000 owed $1,238 in property tax, $103 of which went to the city. If that homeowner had been paying 14.279 mills to the city, the property tax would have been $298 to the city, and $1,433 total.

The battle

Before Martin gets a chance to sell you on her proposal, the first-term Councilor will have to convince her colleagues to put it on the ballot.

She has precious little time. The city has only until July 24 to inform the El Paso County Election Department of its intent to participate in November's election, and Council must approve any ballot question by Aug. 25. The issue must go before Council twice before then, and any tweaks to the wording must be made and OK'd by the city attorney.

Though he obviously likes his own plan, Small says something like Martin's belongs on this year's ballot.

"Service reductions are going to be pretty dramatic," Small says. "But I think we have to be honest with [voters] and say, 'You have the choice.'"

Mayor Lionel Rivera also says he'd like to ask voters for a tax increase, though he's not yet familiar with Martin's plan.

He's not alone. Early this week, Councilors Scott Hente, Bernie Herpin, Darryl Glenn and Jerry Heimlicher still hadn't heard about it, either.

The war

Convincing Councilors — all of whom are staring blankly at the same estimated $23.7 million budget shortfall — may prove easier for Martin than convincing voters, many of whom face budget problems of their own.

Voters quashed a proposal in April that would have retained a small expiring mill levy and earmarked it for economic development. In November, they also said no to a 1-cent sales tax hike to fund county and city services.

But Martin is betting many will feel differently after a summer without a Memorial Park Fourth of July celebration, a summer that left park grass dying and motorists dodging potholes. It won't hurt that locals will be casting their ballots even as the red ink is very publicly flowing all over the 2010 budget.

Coffers have been barren lately because city revenues rely heavily on sales tax — during a recession, those revenues decline, even as yearly costs continue to rise. For this reason, many Councilors want to increase property tax, which is a more stable source of funding.

Martin says she's already hearing that the city likely will need to lay off police officers and firefighters in 2010. Further cuts to parks and transit are a given and could include seemingly radical moves like elimination of weekend and evening bus service system-wide, and the closing of all community and senior centers.

She's even heard that the fire, transit and parks departments are considering detaching from the city altogether, and becoming separate taxing districts — meaning you'd pay property tax directly to each department in addition to your city property tax. (That scenario is little more than a rumor now, and department heads won't comment.)

Martin's proposal comes as the city's Sustainable Funding Committee prepares to issue its own report in late July on how the city can save itself. But Martin says those recommendations will come too late to use in creating a question for this November. Even if they could fuel future proposals, she says, the time to act is now.

"I hope that we can convince Council to at least give it a try," Martin says. "The alternative is to do nothing."

stanley@csindy.com

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