Nearly six months ago, John Suthers stood on the Mining Exchange’s Gold Room stage downtown and proclaimed the dawn of a new era for Colorado Springs.
The first true test of Mayor Suthers’ impact on the city came Tuesday night with the vote on Issue 2C, asking voters to approve a five-year, 0.62 percent sales tax for a projected $250 million to address the huge problem of bad streets and potholes.
Obviously, Suthers’ mayoral honeymoon is nowhere close to ending.
This time the celebration took place in another corner of the Mining Exchange complex, actually the Silver Room behind Springs Orleans restaurant. But the ecstatic mood felt the same as after Suthers’ runoff victory in May.
“I’m pleased to report that Colorado Springs is moving again,” Suthers said to begin his celebratory speech. “The voters sent a loud message tonight.”
If he didn’t capitalize now, there might not have been another chance.
Suthers had known it might be a political gamble, trying for a tax increase and taking on the “no-taxes-ever” crowd. But he felt he had no choice, given the awful state of the city’s public infrastructure. If he didn’t capitalize now on his political advantage now, there might not have been another chance.
In that mayoral runoff, Suthers amassed 68 percent of the vote. This time, Issue 2C wound up with 65 percent, winning by a cushion of 66,690 to 36,354. In other words, definitely a mandate and worth the gamble.
After his speech, the mayor talked about the margin.
“We know that 30 percent of the people here will vote against new taxes, even if their lives are at stake,” Suthers said. “So when we can win by this much [with only 35 percent saying no], that means we have tremendous community buy-in.”
But Suthers made it clear the decision to push for 2C wasn’t made on a whim.
“The key,” he said, “was polling.”
Literally his first week in office, Suthers told City Council that he wanted a clear picture of how Springs residents felt. Council agreed, and that led to Colorado Springs Forward providing money to ask voters a series of questions.
“First, we found out that the people were much more willing to pay for better roads than for stormwater,” Suthers said. “Then, when we asked whether they would support a tax increase for roads if we could take care of stormwater in the city budget, a large percentage of people said they would.”
That pushed Suthers and Council to agree on the “pothole tax,” and as the mayor put it, “We knew we had the right issue.”
Just to be sure, Suthers pushed for another poll recently to find out if that support was wavering. The outcome, which wasn’t made public until Tuesday night, reaffirmed that most voters were still OK with 2C.
“So, yes, we saw it coming,” Suthers said of the convincing victory. He also made it clear the city government would be fully accountable for how the tax money is spent. He talked about RFPs going out immediately for the first projects, which will be awarded as soon as possible, and the mayor said he will appoint an “advisory committee of experts” to work with city staff, provide strategic advice and monitor progress.
The city’s plan, he said, will be to show everyone how much a difference that tax money is making, as soon as possible.
Smart, in every sense.
Suthers said something else: This doesn’t mean he will become a tax-and-spend mayor.
“Let me assure everyone that this city will remain a conservative fiscal environment,” he said firmly. “We will make sure Colorado Springs remains the city with the lowest tax burden of any major city in Colorado.”
That said, Suthers emphasized that he knows of companies considering moves to Colorado Springs, “and this sends them a great signal, that the people here are willing to match the investment by repairing our own infrastructure.”
The mayor made one other brilliant move Tuesday night. As he stood before the cameras and bright lights, Suthers called the six City Council members in the crowd to join him, and he individually thanked those six plus two others not in attendance for their support.
Council President Merv Bennett, who endured the often-adversarial tenure of previous Mayor Steve Bach, fully grasped the symbolism.
“This tells me that when we have the Mayor and City Council working together in support of important issues, we truly can make this a great city,” Bennett said. “We’ll look back on this as a great day for the city of Colorado Springs.”
Hard to argue with that. If John Suthers wants make his honeymoon last a full four years, why not?