Fountain Mayor Gabriel Ortega is in the third year of a four-year term leading the city his family has called home for five generations. The Colorado native left the southern part of the state to attend Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he received a bachelor’s degree in sports medicine. He then returned to Fountain, where he teaches special education in School District 8.
Ortega spoke this week with the Business Journal about Fountain’s challenges, why he became a public servant and his hometown’s growing sense of independence.
What were you doing when you moved back to this part of the state after college?
I came back and the first job I could get was as a paraeducator in the Harrison School District. That changed my career path. Working with children pushed me to pursue education, and I went and got my master’s degree in special education. I’ve been a special educator for 19 years.
Was it always part of your plan to come back to the area?
I didn’t know where I’d end up. I knew it would either be around here or in Fort Collins. … After my wife finished school, we didn’t know where we’d go. Fountain was building new homes. Had they not been, we may not have come back. But my family lives on the south side of the Springs and her family lives in Cañon City. It made sense for us to be closer to everybody.
You’re a full-time teacher and the mayor?
Yes, this is a volunteer position. We do get a monthly stipend. There are a few people on city council with full-time jobs and the rest are retired.
Why did you go into public service?
It was always something in the back of my mind, but I didn’t know if I’d ever do it. When we moved back to Fountain, at the time, the mayor and myself, our families were very close. He encouraged me to run for council. I didn’t make it the first time, but a year later, there were a couple openings. They had to have a special election and I ran against two others.
I was on council for seven years before becoming mayor and four of those years were as mayor pro tem.
What was the political environment when you started?
It was different. We had a new mayor, but everybody was getting along. There were normal small-town political issues, but everyone seemed to be working as one.
What’s happening in Fountain right now?
It’s been pretty quiet. We had our flagpole annexation at South Academy [Boulevard]. The Highlands is what they call it and it’s the home of our new Walmart and Sam’s [Club]. There are some other phases going in there.
We also reorganized our public safety department. We basically made [police and fire] one department. Our police chief is in the role of public safety director. At the same time, he still is our police chief. We also have a fire chief who’s been here more than 20 years.
We’re really hurting at the fire department. We’ve gone to the voters a couple times asking for help. We need a new fire station on the Eastside and we’re severely undermanned. … But it’s very hard to pass a tax increase in Fountain. In the last 30 years, we’ve only passed one as a city. The school district has passed one or two, but they had to put a lot of work into it. We’re pretty tax-unfriendly in this town.
Have sales taxes from the annexation helped boost the city’s coffers?
We’ve dedicated most of those funds to public safety. It does help, but we went into a tax credit incentive with [developers] so they can build faster. It’s one of the reasons they came to us. Over the years, we’ll get more. With Phase II, there’s potential we’ll get 100 percent of sales taxes.
What incentives does Fountain provide and how do you maintain fairness?
Usually our incentives are some kind of short-term deal where developers would get back sales tax to pay off bonds. We look at them case by case and not everyone on council always agrees.
We have business owners on council and it seems sometimes incentives aren’t as small-business friendly, because oftentimes they don’t get them. Often, they don’t ask for them either and we don’t offer. They have to come ask. If it makes sense for Fountain and we can make it work, that’s how council approaches each one.
Recently we’ve looked at slowing down incentives. … and taking a harder look. We needed them initially to get the bigger box stores. Our revenue is all sales tax. We didn’t have any money to get anything done. Our property tax is very low. We rely heavily on sales tax and it’s helped. We have a lot more to offer down here for commercial. We’re at the point where someone doesn’t really need to leave Fountain to get anything done.
Real estate was hot here for a while. What’s that growth been like?
There have been a lot of people moving in. We’re obviously closely tied with Fort Carson and what happens there. … We have a couple of developments going on right now. Ventana [by Challenger Homes] is going just south of here. At total build-out, that will be close to 400 [homes].
Why the growth?
A lot of people are moving down here. I know, when my family moved here, the house we bought was $10,000 cheaper than the exact same home in Colorado Springs. That plays into it.
What demands are you hearing now from residents?
People would like another grocery store. We have a Safeway and a Walmart, but people are looking for more natural food stores — like a Sprouts. They also want trendier chains and sit-down restaurants. Right now we have a lot of fast food. … People would also like another department store, like a Target.
Sitting between Colorado Springs and Pueblo, do you ever feel like the middle child?
Not so much with Pueblo. They’re far enough away. … With Colorado Springs, we do feel that, especially now that we’re trying to find our own way. … We’re able now to create our own path and I think that creates some nervous energy in the Springs. But we’re very excited and will push forward because we think we’re our own community.
As the city grows, do you see the volunteer mayor model continuing to work?
I struggle with that. I’ve heard small groups talking about [a strong mayor governance]. … But I don’t think they understand the bigger picture. … It’s kind of like what happened in the Springs, and I think that backfired a bit with the previous administration. I don’t know here where that threshold is. City council and the city manager have discussed it, but there’s not a real number. If we did it here, we’d lose a city manager because the mayor would take over. I don’t think it’s as great an idea in a small town like this because the pool will be very small and the experience brought to the office would also be small.
Would you be interested?
I don’t know. I’d like to think I know a lot about everything. But I’m not an expert in anything. I rely on my team to guide us and move us forward. I would be up to the challenge, I think. It would be difficult.
I just don’t know.