The proposed 2017 city budget makes interesting reading — all 639 pages of it. Most of it is dry and predictable, but some sections stand out because they illustrate budget tendencies or anomalies that deserve examination.
Here are five takeaways from this year’s proposed budget for Colorado Springs.
In an era when many local governments are overburdened with debt, there’s good news in Colorado Springs — little traditional debt.
“General obligation bonds are direct obligations that pledge the full faith and credit of the city for the repayment of principal and interest,” according to the city’s budget document. “The city’s total general obligation debt limit per the city charter is 10 percent of the assessed valuation; therefore for 2017 the preliminary limit is $498.5 million. This leaves an available debt margin of $498.5 million — or 100 percent of the city’s debt limit remains available.”
The city soon will pay off its sales tax revenue bonds as well.
“In May 1999, the City issued $87,975,000 in sales tax revenue bonds. … The final payment totals $2,766,750, which will be paid in December 2016, after which the city will have no outstanding sales tax revenue bonds.”
But that doesn’t mean the city is debt-free.
Colorado Springs has about $58 million in other forms of debt — excluding Colorado Springs Airport and Colorado Springs Utilities revenue bonds.
The largest outstanding debt is that incurred in 2009 to fund the United States Olympic Committee’s facilities project. Financed through 30-year certificates of participation in the original principal amount of $31.47 million, the COPs carry interest rates of 3 percent to 5 percent. The outstanding principal amount is now $30.18 million. These bonds are callable in whole at any time beginning Nov. 1, 2019, with no call premium.
Why did the city use COPs to finance the deal? The answer’s simple. Issuing either general-obligation or sales tax revenue bonds requires voter approval. At the time, city elected officials believed — probably correctly — that voters would reject the deal.
Other city debt includes $8 million in parking system revenue bonds, a few small COPs that will soon be paid off and a just-completed $13.5 million lease/purchase agreement to fund construction and improvement of a new Sand Creek police substation.
PUBLIC SAFETY SALES TAX
Voters approved a 0.4 percent sales tax in 2001 to fund public safety operating costs and capital improvements. In 2003, appropriated public safety revenue was just under $22 million, with $13 million allocated to capital improvements and one-time capital outlays and the remainder to salaries, benefits and operating costs. In 2017, capital improvements have disappeared from the public safety budget and one-time capital outlays account for only 2.5 percent of the $32.5 million in estimated revenue. The city will use $31.7 million for salaries, benefits and operating costs.
Voters in 2001 clearly believed that the dedicated tax would provide more than enough revenue to ensure that public safety would be fully and adequately funded, but it no longer does. Although public safety collections have risen by 50 percent since 2003, the combination of recession-related revenue shortfalls in 2008-2013, population growth and increased service demands has outstripped available revenue.
Ever since Colorado Springs City Council instituted the Lodging and Automobile Rental Tax, it hasn’t merely been a vehicle for visitor promotion, but a sure indicator of power and changing tastes.
This year the biggest recipient, as always, is the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. Thanks to a three-year contract council inked in 2014, the CVB gets two-thirds of anticipated LART revenue, estimated at $3.6 million in 2017. If revenue outstrips forecasts, the CVB gets two-thirds of that as well — no need for a supplementary appropriation.
Other groups receiving money include Hot Apple production’s Labor Day Lift-Off ($122,000), the Philharmonic’s summer symphony ($142,000), the Bruno Event Team’s 2018 U.S. Senior Open ($165,000), the Pikes Peak Hill Climb ($150,000), El Pomar Foundation ($150,000 for “regional air service task force airport advertising”) and the Pikes Peak Summit Complex ($250,000). Dozens of little dogs also get a biscuit or two, ranging from the Classic 10K ($216) to the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region and the Fine Arts Center ($50,000 each).
The Colorado Springs Sports Corp. will rake in $70,000 for four different events, while the Great Plains Regional Pickleball Tournament gets $10,000.
It helps to have a councilor champion the project. Shortly after he was elected, Don Knight took up the cause, and persuaded his colleagues that embracing pickleball (a leisurely hybrid of tennis and badminton) could be a winning economic development strategy. The investments that the city has made in pickleball — including courts in Monument Valley Park — appear to be paying off, somewhat to the surprise of those who made fun of the whole idea.
A council-appointed committee makes funding recommendations, “reviewing applications for visitor attraction and economic development related events and programs.” Council spreads the money around in good years like this one (55 recipients) and may cut out everyone except the CVB in bad years (2003). It helps to have serious community cred or a really good story ($145,000 for the Pro Cycling Challenge in 2014). In either case, insider connections help.
Unlike almost every city of our size, Colorado Springs gives very little direct support to the arts. Excluding appropriations to the city-owned Pioneers Museum and City Auditorium, what little there is can be found in the LART budget. Total this year: $251,500.
City department heads and airport managers know they’re going to get some state and federal grants, but it’s somewhat difficult to estimate exactly how much they’ll rake in. City budgeters hope for $24.9 million from “various grants, as well as any anticipated interest earnings.”
That’s down $10 million from 2016. In addition, $13.2 million may flow into airport coffers through the airport improvement program and Colorado Discretionary Aviation Grant funds, as well as any anticipated interest earnings.
The city increased funding for the stormwater control program by $1 million “to meet our [intergovernmental agreement] commitment with Pueblo with a plan to increase that funding further in subsequent years.”
In April, the city negotiated that IGA, which calls for Colorado Springs and Utilities to spend $460 million on stormwater during the next 20 years. That’s a de facto long-term debt — and doesn’t include the cost of bringing the city into compliance with its federal Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System Permit.
Much depends on the outcome of the election. It seems likely that Hillary Clinton’s administration could continue Obama’s environmental/climate change mitigation policies. Massive carbon dioxide emitters such as CSU might have to change their ways or even pay a carbon tax.
Serious stuff — but despite obstacles, Mayor Suthers has a lot to celebrate. Our economy is strong, unemployment low, job growth continues, home values are soaring and, all things considered, life is good in the Pikes Peak region.