Numerous local agencies and citizens have made pitches for money coming to Colorado Springs and El Paso County from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act designed to help cities, counties and states recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to information obtained by the Indy via a records request, one citizen called for the city to set aside money to offset rises in utility bills. Another suggested expanding broadband access. The National Museum of World War II Aviation, which “took a huge hit” from the COVID lockdown, needs a boost. And a newly formed consortium of nonprofits submitted a four-page outline of how to pump $40 million into various community needs.
So far, citizens haven’t gotten a chance to deliver their ideas in person to City Council or the Board of County Commissioners. But it appears some city and county elected officials lean toward opening the debate to citizens for how to spend more than $200 million.
“I don’t know if this is going to slow the process and upset the mayor, but I am prone to have a public opportunity to weigh in,” Council President Tom Strand says. “Even though the mayor of our city gets to look across the spectrum of needs and understands them better than anybody, public input would be useful, and I would support that.”
Colorado Springs is set to receive $76 million, and El Paso County roughly $140 million.
The mayor already committed $3.5 million for the financially troubled U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, $9.4 million for “premium pay” for police and firefighters and a mid-year pay bump for city personnel, and about $280,000 to renovate City Council Chambers at City Hall.
Mayor John Suthers’ spending plan, briefed to Council June 10 and July 12 but without hearing public comment, would channel funds to the public health response, economic recovery, community response and recovery, infrastructure, essential government services (pay raises) and the city’s loss of revenue.
While Council has made a few spending suggestions, a majority of members expressed support for the mayor’s plan. Council’s appropriations vote won’t address individual items for which money is allotted, but rather will approve or disapprove the plan as a whole.
Funding requests began to filter in to the city in March after Congress approved ARPA and President Joe Biden signed it, and continued to trickle in through July, records show.
In March, Mike Anderson, a former city employee, asked in an email for relief from the 14-month gas and electric rate increases by city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities to cover fuel costs that spiked during the February deep freeze. “The ARP dollars should be used where they are most needed — helping households and small businesses,” Anderson wrote, noting the “double hit” of utilities’ increases to “already struggling households and businesses.”
Anderson says Strand told him he’d asked Utilities to look into it, but he hasn’t heard anything further.
On June 23, Rich Peters, Pikes Peak Library District’s chief information technology officer, wrote an email inquiring about using some money to reduce the “digital divide” by using schools and libraries as a vehicle for delivering broadband service.
On June 14, Mark Earle, former director of the Colorado Springs Airport who works with the aviation museum, told Chief of Staff Jeff Greene the facility was “still looking for ways to make up for lost ground ... over the past year and a half.”
On June 4, David Dahlin, with the Pikes Peak Community Foundation (PPCF), wrote an email to city officials proposing more than $40 million in spending via The Collective for Impact Philanthropy, a new organization that involves participation by a number of local foundations. Among them: the Lane Foundation, GE Johnson Foundation, Bee Vradenburg Foundation, Gazette Charities Foundation/The Anschutz Foundation and the Pikes Peak Real Estate Foundation.
ARPA money, he said, provides “quite possibly a once-in-a-generation” opportunity for high-impact initiatives. Dahlin said the money could benefit an emergency relief fund for nonprofits, housing for workers and low-income folks and a Community Development Financial Institution that would make loans in low-income areas. It also could help sustain the arts and create a Southeast Community Hub Space, an idea the city is contemplating.
Dahlin tells the Indy in an email that he met with the mayor’s staff but “did not receive any direct response or any directed funding but hope that our input was received and helpful....”
Given that the city plans to use $1 million to shore up the Lodgers and Auto Rental Tax fund, used to finance special events and capital development (the Air Force Academy Visitors Center has requested LART funds), many small requests have poured in for that pool.
Strand tells the Indy he generally supports the mayor’s proposal.
For example, it funnels money to new irrigation systems for the city’s golf courses and cemeteries, which he calls a one-off that serves as a lasting conservation measure.
He expressed some confusion over Suthers’ plan to spend $8 million to build a new senior center, located at the city-owned Golf Acres shopping center, 1424 N. Hancock Ave. “I didn’t even know that. We own the entire shopping center,” he says.
Noting that $76 million represents “a fortune” in his eyes, Strand wants to direct a portion to affordable housing, a dire need for Springs residents, as well as fund a handful of smaller projects, such as contributing to the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region’s new $6 million clinic.
Acknowledging ARPA spending “is really an executive decision,” Strand notes, “The mayor, because of who he is, would like collaboration with City Council, but it’s not like he’s asking, ‘Mother, may I?’ He’s saying these are the needs our city has.”
Still, Strand supports opening the door to ideas from citizens, a move endorsed by Council President Pro Tem Richard Skorman.
“I’ve been urging them to allow us to at least have town halls,” Skorman says. “When the [appropriations] vote happens, then it’s too late.”
He adds, “Do we have to make these decisions right away? We don’t have to allot this money until December 2024. Absolutely, I think the public should be able to weigh in.”
Some ideas are just starting to take form, he says, such as the Southeast hub, which would concentrate a bevy of support agencies, such as a workforce center office and a county Public Health office, in the city’s southeast sector.
“I’m not sure why we’re rushing into these decisions,” he says.
El Paso County has received a smattering of requests for ARPA funding, including from the Community Cultural Collective, a new outfit that wants the city to transfer ownership of City Auditorium to it; a request from Venetucci Farms; United Way; and several water districts, which face challenges in delivering water supplies to population numbers that are exploding outside the city limits.
County spokesperson Ryan Parsell says ARPA’s spending deadline is the end of 2026, unlike the rushed spending deadline of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), adopted by Congress in May 2020, that required funds be expended by the end of that year.
“We can take the time for some of these projects. We can be deliberate and equitable in our approach,” Parsell says. Hence, he adds, “The county is still working out a process that’s fair and equitable for all requesters that seems to do the best amount of good for the most amount of citizens.”
He declined to discuss the draft spending plan in detail, noting it’s “not quite ready for prime time.”
Parsell did say the county already has committed $500,000 to the Olympic & Paralympic Museum and roughly $10 million to the regional business relief fund to help small businesses get back on their feet after the COVID shutdown.
He also notes the money comes to the county in two installments — $69 million this year, and the balance next year.
Asked about consulting citizens for their views, Parsell says, “There’s a strong likelihood of that.” He also pointed out that the county is run by five elected commissioners, not a sole executive like the city, so any spending proposal will require support from three commissioners.