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John Suthers reflects on first term as mayor, sets a new agenda and eyes a second term 

Forging ahead

click to enlarge BILL CROWLEY
  • Bill Crowley

With a year left to go in his four-year term, Mayor John Suthers feels chipper about all he's accomplished so far. And with good reason. He persuaded voters to fund two massive infrastructure needs — roads and stormwater — and the downtown area is bustling with development.

Riding a wave of economic recovery, Suthers came into office in 2015 as the city's second strong mayor under a City Charter change approved by voters in 2010. At 66, Suthers is far from contemplating retirement, saying he puts in up to 80 hours a week at the helm of his hometown. He likely will seek a second term.

Steve Bach, the city's first strong mayor, a headstrong commercial real estate agent, served one term and created a firestorm of controversy on topics ranging from Colorado Springs Utilities to City Council powers. But Suthers, who's served as district attorney, U.S. Attorney, state Department of Corrections chief and Colorado's Attorney General, has healed those rifts and pushed an agenda that's friendly to developers and business.

We caught up with Suthers for a 75-minute interview in his sixth floor office conference room on July 11, where he reflected on his accomplishments as mayor and outlined challenges ahead. Not surprisingly, a lot hinges on tackling some pernicious problems, such as affordable housing and a growing homeless population. But the mayor also could look forward, if re-elected, to presiding over the city as the $60-million Olympic Museum opens downtown in late 2019, a new Summit House gets unveiled in 2020 atop Pikes Peak and a new stadium and arena arise from the city core as well. Of course, he's mindful he could be smacked with an economic downturn too.

Asked for his top accomplishments so far, Suthers, ever the strategist, names three things that all went hand-in-hand. First, mending Council-mayor relations to the point that councilors were willing to refer his two tax measures to the ballot (2C, a road tax approved in November 2015, and 2A, a stormwater fee approved in November 2017). Second, passing those measures, even though polling initially showed only 14 percent of voters even thought stormwater was a major issue. That stormwater measure was especially important because of a lawsuit from the Environmental Protection Agency, stemming from the city's violations of the Clean Water Act due to poor stormwater control. And third, boosting the economy — something that Suthers says was partially made possible by better infrastructure, since that's always on the short list for relocating companies, though clearly the national economy played the biggest role.

"If you would've told me in 2015 that the median salary of a posted job in Colorado Springs in July 2018 would be $72,500, I'd say you're nuts," he says.

Now, Suthers says, the city must find ways to prepare for growth, since our 11,000 job openings are largely for highly skilled fields like RNs, software engineers and system engineers/cybersecurity. We also must find ways to boost those whom the economy has left behind, and ways to navigate our own growing pains and the increasing pressure of a red-hot tourism market.

We asked the mayor about the future.

Indy: What hurdles lie ahead for you and the city?

Suthers: Obviously, I told you why 2A was so important. Part of the follow-up to that is we freed up general fund [money] for hiring 120 cops. We're going to have 48 people in every single police academy [from] here on out until we've hired an additional 120 cops. We think that's going to take us four years, because, obviously, a lot of the classes are filling vacancies [from retirements and resignations]. Putting more cops on the streets is very important. We were falling behind on that, and we need to get closer to national averages in that regard and get some of our response times down. We're going to hire some more — don't know the exact number of — firefighters.

About that, will we ever reach a time when citizens can once again expect a police officer to respond to a cold burglary?

I don't know. I would hope so, because I know victims of burglary feel very violated, and when you come home from a trip and you find your home's been burglarized, that's a serious issue for you and you want the Police Department to consider it serious. So that would be my goal, but I certainly can't promise that. You just don't know what the demands are going to be.

Then there was the Banning Lewis Ranch.

I felt very good about the approval of the reannexation agreement. People didn't stop coming here because Banning Lewis Ranch wasn't developing. They were coming here and building in Falcon and basically leap-frogging Colorado Springs. Rather than see that continue and burden some water districts that I'm not sure what their future is, I think it was very appropriate that we get an annexation agreement that will allow for appropriate development of Banning Lewis Ranch inside the city where we've got the water supply.

I did a lot of behind-the-scenes work on the expansion of I-25. I had a couple of trips to Washington to kind of calm people down and make sure that that happened. So I felt very good about that. In terms of the rest of the year, I'm very excited about the way downtown is taking off. I was down at the Catalyst Campus the other day. They're almost full. They're looking to expand. We've got more people working downtown, more people going to live downtown.

Looking ahead, what about the Summit House?

I'm glad we're at the point where we're able to break ground on the Summit House. I'm trying to raise $15 million privately to go with $43 million that the [Pikes Peak – America's Mountain] enterprise itself can raise. It's going to be a great facility, much needed, and we hope to finish that in fall of 2020, and with The Broadmoor indicating they're going to go ahead with the Cog [railway from Manitou Springs to the summit], a massive investment, I think those two things will happen pretty close in time, and I think that will be great for Pikes Peak and tourism. I'm hearing all kinds of anecdotal stories from people [that] one of their main things [they want to do] in coming to Colorado Springs is taking the train up Pikes Peak, and when they find out that's not possible, you have to sell them on, hey, you can drive up there, too. A lot of them are doing it, because we're up 30 percent in the month of June.

What other projects are on tap for the next year or so?

I'm trying to work with the [county] commissioners to come up with a merger of the respective offices of emergency management. I just think it's kind of stupid for the city to have an office of emergency management and the county to have one also, and I would love to merge those. Now that we're into the summer and the fire season, I don't think this is the time to transition, but I'm hoping in the fall we'll be able to do that. Not a tremendous economic saving right off the bat, but obviously there would be savings from having one head instead of two. We wouldn't be laying off anyone initially. We would be consolidating where they're located. We would probably move to the county facility, then begin to examine over a couple years what our needed resources are in a consolidated OEM, and I think over time would probably save some money, but most important it would be more efficient and effective.

When Pikes Peak Summit House opens in 2020, are you hoping to be the mayor then?

I will make a decision by Labor Day. And my health is good. That's always a factor you take into account, and the only other consideration, and I don't know if you'll appreciate this or not, I'll be 67 in October. Do I really want to be 70 years old working 75 to 80 hours a week? I suspect the answer to that is "yes."

click to enlarge The Pikes Peak Summit Complex recently broke ground, targeting a fall 2020 opening. - RTA ARCHITECTS/GWWO ARCHITECTS/DHM DESIGN
  • RTA Architects/GWWO Architects/DHM Design
  • The Pikes Peak Summit Complex recently broke ground, targeting a fall 2020 opening.

Doesn't it make sense that you've put everything in place at this point to continue into a second term?

Yeah. On the other hand the economy is going to turn down, right? One of the things I'm working hard on is to position us well for the next downturn. This is really getting into the weeds, but I think we've raised the unrestricted general fund reserve [the city's so-called rainy day fund] from 14 to 17 percent. I personally would like to reach 20 percent. There's a fairly healthy reserve in the PSST [Public Safety Sales Tax] fund, which is really to make sure when there's a downturn and you're laying off people, it's not cops and firefighters; it's IT, or parks maintenance, or something like that. Don't want to do anything like that, but you got to prioritize. The good news is, everybody I talk to says probably not until 2020 we'll see a downturn, and everybody thinks Colorado Springs has positioned itself pretty well. It may not be as impacted as other parts of the country.

There's been talk of asking voters to increase the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax.

I would like to see it increase — 2 percent for a city that is so heavily reliant on tourism [is low]. Denver is 10 percent, [Washington] D.C., is 15. People check out of a hotel, and they never look at it, right? But here's the interesting thing. Because of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights [which requires voter approval of tax increases], even though it's a tax that only affects a small segment of the community — those people visiting and staying at our hotels and renting cars — it does have to go to a vote.

We've done some polling, and two things stand out. No. 1: Nobody knows what LART is. No. 2: It would take an awful lot of money to make sure they understood that they don't pay it... I think people were kind of shocked that if you ask the question, "Should taxes be raised $6 million a year for the lodging and rental tax?" — which is what the question would read — the results are very bad. Then you gotta spend a lot of money saying, "Oh, by the way, you only pay it if you check into a local hotel or rent a local car." Then the numbers creep up, but right now I think we could spend $1 million and not be assured of winning. I'm trying to raise money for a lot of different things for the city — Summit House and Olympic Museum and things like that — and I'm not sure we wanna take it on now. If I remain mayor for another four years, I would like to get LART increased. And here's a couple of things I would like to do. Tourists are now a very heavy burden on a couple of our parks — Garden of the Gods, North Cheyenne Cañon — and I'm sure they've got numbers for tourists that go into Palmer Park and stuff like that, but I think the tourists ought to pay a good portion of the maintenance in those parks.

How would you do that?

You'd dedicate a portion of the LART tax to that, and you'd tell the voters. Half a million or three quarters of a million [dollars] has to go to these parks. I think LART needs to happen. I don't see it happening in the next year.

Going back to the stormwater lawsuit, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is out of the picture now, and you've been personally acquainted with him, both of you having been attorneys general. What kind of relationship was that?

Professional. I mean, "Hi, Scott. Hi, John." Been to a lot of AG meetings with him and that sort of thing.

What impact will his departure as head of EPA have on the city's hope to negotiate a settlement?

I hope none. Obviously, any time you're dealing with EPA and the Justice Department, you've gotta convince not just the top, but you gotta convince the folks that handle litigation the case ought to be settled. And I really, really believe that this case should be settled. Go to trial and ... I think a federal judge would say, "OK, you didn't do this right. What's your plan?" Well, here's our plan [our stormwater taxes and program]. I just don't see any reason why it shouldn't settle. I know federal bureaucracies. They want a fine. But it ought to be a reasonable fine, and we ought to move on down the road, and that's what I hope will happen. But as of right now, the case is still set for trial.

But is $460 million over 20 years from the stormwater fee adequate? Some estimates put the need at $1 billion.

It's certainly going to make a huge, huge difference. There needs to be a lot of new infrastructure. That is expensive. Fixing up some of the existing infrastructure is not as expensive as you'd think.

And at the end of 20 years?

I think it's only appropriate that you have a whole new look-see. What do we need going forward? And people will be plenty used to paying a stormwater fee by then, if it's well administered.

click to enlarge Cowboy up: Mayor Suthers participates in one of our city's Western cultural heritage events. - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy City Of Colorado Springs
  • Cowboy up: Mayor Suthers participates in one of our city's Western cultural heritage events.

Turning to the question of the homeless. What should the city do and what should the community do to address this issue? It seems like the bigger Springs Rescue Mission gets, the bigger the homeless population gets.

Yeah, yeah, I will agree with you there. Let me tell you, when I go to mayors' meetings, I always go to homelessness [sessions], I always go to affordable housing [sessions] just to make sure there's no silver bullets out there, and by the way, there are no silver bullets out there. But, this is a balancing act for government. On one hand, you've got these nonprofit service providers who deserve a tremendous amount of credit. They are meeting these people where they are, nonjudgmentally and trying to provide services, and we should be very grateful for that. I have to tell you, the vast majority of people I hear from aren't those people... Most people, I think — and I would probably be guilty of being one of them — are a little more judgmental, tend to see a person and see lots of bad choices and things like that. But we've got to take advantage of these nonprofit groups, and then consider what the appropriate role of the city should be. I believe very strongly we're on the right path with the Rescue Mission campus. Before that's all done, I think it's going to be about a $28-million investment. The city's got, my guess, $3.5 to $4 million in it, mostly federal pass-through dollars, block grants, things like that. Tremendous amount of foundation and individual philanthropic support. Nor'wood [Development Group] is building a supportive [apartment] complex down there. That's what, $15 million, a lot of money.

The vision is that when we open the large kitchen down there, the noontime meal at the Marian House [at Bijou Street and Cascade Avenue] for the chronic homeless will move down there. The Marian House will continue to serve families and what we call the working poor, who basically run out of money at the end of the month and need a place to eat.

What the public is very impatient about and I don't blame them a bit, is camping. Homeless on the bridges, on public rights of way, in some cases trespassing on private property. We are going to approach that problem as aggressively as we can while still abiding by all the legal constraints. As long as I'm the mayor, the law is going to be the primary driver. Any ordinances you deal with here you've got to have compelling government interest, and public safety, things like that. What I think needs to happen now, we need to increase, and I don't think this is unlimited, but I think we do need to increase our low-barrier shelter bed capacity to the point where we can be aggressive about enforcing no-camping bans, telling them, here's a shelter bed available to you, if you don't take it, we're going to clean up your camp, you gotta move on. And, obviously, right now, they tend to move 100 yards, 200 yards, something like that. But I think we owe it to the folks trying to use our trails and all that sort of thing, the sheltered individuals, which are the vast majority, to do what we can to reach this balance. I hope to have 300 more shelter beds by the fall, a total of about 620, 630, and we think that's enough capacity to pretty vigorously enforce the [no-camping] ordinance.

On one hand you talk about job growth and high wages, but yet we see people on the streets and some newly homeless because their jobs didn't pay them enough to absorb some kind of economic shock. So do we have a low-wage syndrome that can lead to this problem?

I don't think the availability of jobs is a big part of the picture. Availability of housing is part of it. But there's a lot of people making a choice not to take a low-wage job at McDonald's or something like that that would allow them to have some subsistence level shelter. They're just making the choice not to do that. Now, no question some people are losing jobs, becoming homeless. Frankly, those folks are the easiest to shelter. Most of those folks you can get in a Salvation Army facility. We can get them a voucher from Catholic Charities, things like that. Those are not the most problematic folks to shelter. The most problematic folks to shelter are the folks with a mental health or substance abuse overlay which either prevents them from holding a job or causes them not to want to seek employment.

At minimum wage, I wonder what you could rent for that amount of money, plus utilities, food, etc.?

It wouldn't be luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, and you'd have to have a living arrangement you're contributing to, or something like that. The solution to me is not a $20 minimum wage for fast food. These guys [business owners] are in business; they have an overhead they're dealing with.

Are we really seeing as much job growth as you say?

We are. It's not just us dreaming these numbers up. There are economic development people who track this. You want to know where the jobs are? Call Pikes Peak Workforce Center, and see where they are, but they're there. Not everybody meets the qualifications. I remember three years ago everybody said kids won't stay in Colorado Springs. Let me tell you, if young people aren't staying in Colorado Springs right now, it has more to do with maybe not wanting to live with their parents than the availability of jobs. We have the fastest-growing millennial population in the country in Colorado Springs right now because of all the jobs that are available here. Cybersecurity, software engineering all that sort of thing.

Speaking of affordable housing, does the city have a role to play in that?

Not building the housing itself but encouraging it. We [should] line up a developer with a project, make sure the developer knows what's in it for them in terms of tax incentives. [There are] three or four projects, 500 beds, coming out of the ground this year in Colorado Springs in those type of projects. Steve Posey [with the city community development office] was in front of City Council the other day talking about how the city can help bond projects with federal dollars. The Colorado Springs Housing Authority, of course, which is not technically an arm of the city, it has resources. It actually takes some of the revenue it gets from low-income housing and builds additional housing. We're not going to take care of all 20,000 people needing housing assistance, but I would like to get to the point where we're creating at least 1,000 affordable housing units a year, and that's basically doubling where we are right now. One of the problems we've had is local developers haven't been particularly interested in affordable housing. I think the fact that Nor'wood was willing to step up, take on an affordable housing project, hopefully that goes well and it will be an indication to other developers they can get into this business.

Earlier you mentioned the Banning Lewis Ranch annexation. Now we're hearing that Cherokee Metropolitan District east of Powers Boulevard might want to be annexed. What are your thoughts on that, and when do we stop expanding the city's borders?

Maybe sooner than you think. First of all, in terms of existing development, it makes very little sense for the city to annex residential property, because, frankly, our property taxes are so low and particularly the city's share of property taxes is so small that it doesn't produce enough revenue to take care of the infrastructure... In terms of annexation, I think what you're going to continue to see, because there's a couple of these going on right now, we're going to go out and do the financial analysis, and it's in our interest to have this retail establishment in the city of Colorado Springs. To have appropriate contiguousness, we may have to take in a residential development, but we know damn well that it's an economic plus for the city.

[As for Cherokee], I can't see doing that. Colorado Springs Utilities is going to have to decide, are we going to make sure we take care of Colorado Springs, or are we going to regionalize and take in some of these other districts? The long-term future to water districts is not very good. They may be able to take care of who they got, but they really can't grow much. And so, it doesn't surprise me they might be looking for consolidation. But I think they're going to have a hard, hard time. As long as I'm mayor, and based on conversations I've had with the existing Council, we don't want a bunch of residential properties that aren't accompanied by revenue-producing properties. The reality of the world right now, property taxes don't do it and I don't see that changing... The reality is, for as long as I can see into the future, we're going to be a sales-tax-dependent municipality, which is why I'm talking so much about preparing for the next downturn. And that means being very careful about what you annex. Some of these districts that may have grandiose dreams of annexation better come up with some way that they're going to pay for infrastructure, because I don't see burdening the city of Colorado Springs for additional infrastructure development when in fact these houses that are annexed, their property taxes don't come close to paying for anything.

The mayor has to try to balance many parties' interests in decisions. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • The mayor has to try to balance many parties' interests in decisions.

Some citizens contend the city cares more about tourists when it comes to its parks than it does about its own residents. How do you balance those needs between tourists and local residents? Which needs come first?

That's a good question. I think both of these have to be recognized, but I think you're right, we find that residents around Garden of the Gods, residents around the North Cheyenne Cañon don't accept the fact that these are major tourist attractions, and they want to be able to walk their dog and they've always walked it and why does the city care about tourists? The big picture is, tourism is a major, major factor in our economy and driving our economy, and our job picture, our economic picture, including our tax revenue picture, would be drastically different if we did not have those tourists. So what I can't do is say, "OK we're going to limit the number of tourists to X number" or things like that. We're going to try and have balance, but my guess is in the long run people living next to these [parks] will probably be unhappy that we're catering to tourists as much as we are, but that is because of how significant a factor they are in the area's economy. But you gotta listen to everybody.

Are there other parks that seem to be forgotten as the city focuses on the big ones?

Yeah. Palmer Park is a wonderful park for hiking and things like that. I don't know what the tourist numbers are there. I have driven by Venezia Park twice in the last week and on hot days, and I was just blown away by how packed the parking lots are and literally hundreds of kids in their swimming suits running through the sprayground. Those are parks primarily for the locals and we gotta make sure they're taken care of. In terms of park funding, the Council and I have, I don't know if you call it a handshake deal, that the increased revenue from cable [franchise] fees would go to parks. That's escalating. I think it went up a million last year and we gave $950,000 to parks. We hope it will go up maybe a million this year, and we hope to have the vast majority of that go to parks.

What's your take on this dispute, if you will, over Council approving settlements in executive session?

In my opinion, it's much ado about nothing. I think it's easily solved. I'll give you a little background. There's nothing in state law that says a legislative body needs to be involved in settlement litigation. So in the state of Colorado, the Legislature has nothing to do whatsoever with settling lawsuits. The attorney general, treasurer and head of personnel [do that]. Other cities, you know, there's a committee, much like we do for cases under $100,000. In the city code or charter, there's a provision Council shall approve settlements over $100,000. It doesn't say what that approval consists of.

I personally don't think there's any violations of law taking place, but what I recommended to them, if you want to have people [councilors] vote for or against something, let's go ahead and have a vote on the record with the following caveats. I think probably 70 percent of the time litigation is being discussed in executive session — in 30 percent they're just advising the status of things — the city attorney is going to a settlement conference in federal court, [and] they're looking for settlement authorization. So they come to the Council and they say, "This is where we think our exposure is. We think anything above $600,000 ought to go to trial; if it's below $600,000 we should settle." So the Council is being asked to authorize settlement up to $600,000. Obviously, you can't then adjourn to formal session and say [that] publicly. What I'm recommending is, they should go into public session and say, "We approve of the settlement authority discussed in closed session." The other thing I suggested to Council is it's gotta be a straight up or down vote; we're not going to have debate on the record. You know, "I think this guy is a slimeball and we shouldn't be giving him a dime." That's the kind of thing that gets you another lawsuit that may or may not have any merit but we're spending a couple hundred thousand dollars defending lawsuits where these folks make comments on the record. So as I say, I think this is easily solvable.

What do you see as your legacy so far?

I'm not a guy that likes to describe his own legacy. I'll tell you what I feel best about: the fact we've made as much progress on infrastructure as we have. I feel very good about that. If you would have told me when I saw that first poll in 2014 that we could eventually pull off a stormwater fee — it was an uphill climb.

If you seek another term, I guess you'll be going back to voters to renew 2C?

Yes, and let me talk about that, because it has a lot to do with my position on the statewide Denver Chamber ballot measure [to raise sales taxes for roads statewide]. We did 2C for five years, .62 [percent], raised our sales tax from 7.63 [percent], to 8.25 [percent]. This year, that's going to generate about $52 million bucks for roads. That's a pretty good chunk.

If the chamber, and they're out petitioning — the Denver Chamber and metro mayors are very much on board — if they do a statewide thing at .62 [percent], state sales tax goes up .62. That would get us to 8.87. I think that's too high. And I suspect the Council would think so too. So if it passes, we would not seek to renew 2C.

Here's the problem for the voters of Colorado Springs: We would be giving up $52 million [a year] in local money. But this state measure the Denver Chamber is pushing, only 45 percent of it goes to state highways, 15 percent goes to transit/multi-modal, and the other 40 percent is split 20/20 between counties and cities, to get them on board. The state uses the highway formula the same way gas tax money is appropriated. Bottom line, our estimate right now is that would be $18 million [a year] for us — $18 million over the next 20 years. Now it is 20 years, but we'd be paying the same sales tax and local roads would be getting $18 million instead of $52 million. Plus, [another ballot measure currently in the petition stage] would spend $350 million a year to bond $3.5 billion, without a tax increase, and we'll do as many state roads as the other measure will. And for our city residents, I think that's a better deal.

I've come out on the record against it [the Denver chamber proposal] and made no friends in Denver over it. But I feel from Colorado Springs' perspective, it's not a good deal.

Your commentary doesn't sound like it's coming from someone who's winding down a four-year term. It sounds like you'll seek a second term.

What if someone offered me a job I wanted to take?

What job would that be?

Very few. I have turned down several jobs in the last several years. You know, I think I told you I was asked if I wanted a federal judgeship. I don't want a federal judgeship. I had some discussions with the Trump administration. Obviously, I had a very short life on the FBI [director] short list. That will be a hilarious chapter in my memoir. But they came back to me on some other things, none of which could entice me away from Colorado Springs. It would have to be — whether John Hickenlooper is president or somebody else — not very many things. I think he's [Hickenlooper] going to run [for president]. I'm just saying whoever is president there's a few jobs I would be interested in.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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