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Off and running 

Mayor-elect Suthers talks about a tax hike, security, severance pay and his political future

Two days after he was elected mayor of Colorado Springs, John Suthers further defined the ballot measure he wants to see submitted to voters in November to begin tackling the city's "seriously deteriorating roadways" and other infrastructure needs.

The second person to hold the mayor's seat since voters installed a mayor-council form of government in 2010, Suthers says he'll push for an increase in sales tax, not a property tax, to fund infrastructure. He also wants to restrict the increase to five years, with the option to seek its renewal for another five years after that.

The 63-year-old Suthers, who takes office on Tuesday, June 2, granted an hour-long interview with the Independent last Thursday, diverging from Mayor Steve Bach, who's shied away from the media in the last couple years. In fact, Suthers had met with various reporters within 48 hours of his victory.

Suthers also will operate differently from Bach by banning city employees' use of personal email accounts for city business; resurrecting efforts to "go green" to save taxpayers money; getting involved in national mayoral organizations; and attending a fair number of City Council meetings.

But Suthers won't scrap all existing protocols. He'll retain tight security at the City Administration Building and will keep a police security detail for himself, though with limited use. He'll continue Bach's Spirit of the Springs community recognition program and the Mayor's Cup golf tournament that raises scholarship money. And he will oppose retail recreational marijuana sales in Colorado Springs, though he says he won't fight a citizen vote.

As for one of Bach's most controversial practices — paying $1.7 million in severance pay to departing employees — Suthers says he, too, might use taxpayer funds in saying goodbye to some workers.

Considering that his résumé includes stints as district attorney, U.S. attorney, Department of Corrections chief and state attorney general, rumors have suggested Suthers might seek another elected office while mayor. Not so, he vows.

"I will not run for governor. I will not run for the U.S. Senate," he says, noting he's had opportunities to run, but chose not to. "In the final analysis, I loved being attorney general so much I didn't want to give it up."

Suthers says he and his wife, Janet, decided he'd stop commuting — his home has always been in Colorado Springs — by seeking the mayor's post, and says he might seek a second term.

"I will not run for another elected office other than mayor of Colorado Springs," he says, "unless it's school board or something when I'm 75. You will not see me as a candidate for any state or national office."

The city's $1 billion infrastructure backlog took center stage during the campaign, especially when potholes opened by the thousands across the city this spring.

To fix the underlying problem — a lack of maintenance over the years — Suthers wants a tax increase to rebuild the city's roads, bridges and drainage channels, and to improve parks. Though he didn't say how much money he'd seek, he pointed to polling done by his campaign about what kind of tax has the best chance of approval.

"When we posed the [funding] question of infrastructure backlog," he says, "borrowing was number one, a dedicated sales tax, despite the fact we're pretty sales-tax-dependent [came in second], and property tax was way, way behind."

The city has the capacity to borrow up to $400 million, but making debt payments from the general fund could be tricky over 20 to 30 years. "If there's another downturn, you've really got a problem," he says, noting that when the 2008 recession brought a dive in sales tax revenue, City Council slashed budgets, laid off hundreds of workers, darkened street lights and stopped watering parks.

Given that the city's sales and use tax is its single largest revenue source, at about $148 million, it might sound unwise to rely even more on sales tax for infrastructure. But citizens prefer it, he says, noting that it's a consumption tax — the more you spend, the more you pay — and that tourists pay a good share of the total collected.

Also, while property taxes are "incredibly low" — at 4.279 mills, it's one of the lowest rates in the state and brings in only $19.8 million a year — most people don't single out the city from their tax bill but view it in aggregate with other taxing entities.

"So I'm not sure that's a winnable education effort," he says, especially since a recovering economy has pushed property values up for the first time in years.

"We all got assessment statements [in May] that make it clear our property tax is going to go up in the next year," he says, "so this is not the time to go to them and say, 'In addition to the increase in taxes that comes from appreciation, we're also going to try to raise the property tax to deal with infrastructure issues.'

"We have to be realistic," he adds. "Not only how much do we have to raise, but what's most likely to succeed. It doesn't do us much good to go to the voters and get whupped."

Suthers also believes limiting a tax to five years would bring the best chance for passage. "It has to be a defined amount for a defined period of time," he says, "with the notion the public will get a chance to assess the success of it and renew it if they think it's a success."

That's the formula used for both the trails and open space tax and the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority tax, both of which have been renewed by voters. A half-percent sales tax, which Suthers mentioned as a possibility, would generate about $30 million a year.

In early 2013, when a federal grant expired, Bach allowed the city's sustainability office to disappear. Suthers says he'll consider resurrecting it.

"The city itself should be heavily engaged in recycling. The city should be heavily engaged in water conservation," he says, "though one of the ironies is the more water we save, the higher the rates have to be, because there's an infrastructure [Colorado Springs] Utilities has to support.

"I think you'll see the city moving to more artificial surfaces in softball, baseball fields for the purposes of saving water and, ultimately, money. Any construction the city does should be as environmentally sophisticated as possible. We should make sure we're building structures that are top-of-the-line in terms of environmental conservation."

Suthers says he defines sustainability as "doing everything you can to leave the environment, the Earth, in as good a condition, or better, than you found it." That said, he notes he's not in favor of an immediate shutdown of the downtown coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant, which Bach favored to make way for development.

"In terms of financial feasibility," Suthers says, "it simply cannot be done. We cannot impose that kind of burden on the ratepayers. ... But we ought to be thinking about the realities of the future. The [Environmental Protection Agency] emissions requirements aren't going to get any less, the clean-air issues are going to continue to be there, and that's part of long-term planning. I would be surprised, given the way environmental considerations are moving, that Drake would continue to be viable 15 to 20 years from now. I think it will be closed, but closing it in the next two or three years is not viable."

Unlike Bach, who traveled little for national meetings, Suthers plans to engage in the National Conference of Mayors and similar groups. As a member of the National District Attorneys Association and National Association of Attorneys General, Suthers says, he learned a lot. And he thinks it would be worthwhile to add his voice to those of other "big-city mayors" to convey cities' concerns to lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

He'll also go on Regional Business Alliance economic development trips, but only when "the RBA says to me, 'This is a trip where I think we could really benefit from you being involved.'

"But it's always a balance act," he notes. "I learned early on if you wanted to, you could be on the road three weeks a month. That's not going to meet your obligations." (Suthers says he's already receiving about 500 emails a day, though he didn't offer from whom.)

Closer to home, Suthers says he'll make time to attend more City Council meetings than Bach did. Indeed, he says that establishing a "collaborative working relationship" with Council is a top priority in his first 100 days in office. "The public wants that," he says. "It's very clear to me they're very frustrated by the perception and, obviously, the reality the mayor and Council weren't moving together on issues that are confronting the city."

He adds that his pick for chief of staff, El Paso County Administrator Jeff Greene, "will be a regular" at Council meetings.

But while there will be some big differences between him and Bach, he'll also follow in his predecessor's footsteps on some things, such as security. Bach raised eyebrows by ordering police escorts for his jaunts outside his office, installing a lock on the mayor's suite, and making citizens produce ID to be admitted to the building.

"Public office buildings need to have some sort of security," Suthers says. "I will discuss with the police chief and others what security is at the Administration Building. ... People will have to sign in. And my guess is you won't be able to walk into the mayor's office without contacting somebody first. That's just a matter of basic security in this day and age."

Well aware of the risks — Suthers came under 24/7 guard for a time following the March 19, 2013, murder of prisons chief Tom Clements — he says he'll use police escorts "if there are issues of security," or "if I'm going into a public event ... where I have no clue who's there."

On recreational marijuana, he agrees with Bach that it's bad for the community, saying he'll veto a move by Council to allow retail sales by ordinance, though he'd allow a measure to go to voters. "If they want to let the voters vote on it, let's let the voters vote on it," he says.

As for severance pay, Suthers says he thinks Bach paid a lot of money that wasn't necessary, but he's not willing to swear off the practice, which can be a tool to achieve "basic fairness" in dismissing an employee. It's worth noting that when he comes into office, he'll be overseeing department heads chosen by Bach to run elections, planning, public works, the legal department, police, fire, information technology, budget, human resources, parks and the Colorado Springs Airport.

"I will immerse myself in city government for the next 90 days," he says, "and make my own decision of who's doing a good job and not doing a good job."

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