By most statistical measures, Colorado Springs is a notably smart city. Among large American cities, we rank in the top 10 in brainpower, right up there with Seattle, Austin, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. You’d think that our educated, entrepreneurial and sophisticated residents would make good decisions at the ballot box, but that hasn’t always been the case.
And no, I’m not talking about our Trumpian leanings — as I pointed out in this space last week, some of the policies of his Orange Majesty might actually benefit Colorado Springs.
In recent decades, voters here have made some good decisions and some bad ones.
Consider stormwater. Virtually every city of any size in the United States imposes some kind of stormwater fee or tax to build and maintain stormwater infrastructure. That’s necessary both to protect residents and property from floods large and small, and to comply with federal and state laws. After all, runoff from our impermeable surfaces flows down to Pueblo, and it’s our responsibility to control and minimize those flows.
That’s why city council created the so-called stormwater enterprise in 2007, which charged property owners a fee based on impermeable surfaces such as roofs and driveways. Some residents, led by veteran taxophobe Douglas Bruce, railed against the fee as an illegal property tax. Bruce put together an initiative designed to kill the enterprise, which passed by a 54-46 margin in 2009.
Council promptly terminated the enterprise. The strapped city couldn’t spend enough to comply with the modest mandates of the federal municipal separate storm sewer system permit, let alone adequately protect residents, businesses and neighboring downstream communities.
In 2015, a carefully crafted countywide stormwater fee proposal was placed on the county ballot by Colorado Springs and El Paso County — and the voters nixed it as just another iteration of the “rainwater tax.”
And now we (and future residents) are stuck with the bill. We’ve agreed to invest $460 million during the next 20 years in flood mitigation projects on Fountain Creek to settle ongoing disputes with Pueblo. Mayor and council are struggling to figure out a long-term fix for stormwater funding, while grappling with a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Protection Agency. We’ll need another $20 million annually, and it’ll eventually be up the voters once again. It’s a classic case of a bad voter decision leading to bad outcomes.
Moving on, in two months we’ll have an opportunity to vote on an apparently innocuous proposal referred to the voters by City Council.
Apparently encouraged by the success of November’s “Raise the Bar” statewide initiative, council is proposing to amend the charter to require 60 percent voter approval for the sale of any “substantial” part of the utility system, instead of a simple majority of 50 percent plus one.
Like “Raise the Bar,” the amendment has a certain appeal. Suppose the Dougster wanted to sell electric generation and managed to get 52 percent approval? Disaster, right?
But let’s imagine a different scenario. Suppose it becomes clear to the utilities board of directors that electric generation is increasingly a business of scale, one in which small players can’t easily thrive. A deal is negotiated with Xcel, Black Hills or another investor-owned utility and the board refers it to the voters. Only 59.6 percent approve, and the deal’s dead.
Business worsens, rates soar and the utilities tries to renegotiate for another go-round. Alas, the moment has passed. The big boys walk, sure that they can pick up the pieces in a few years for nothing. We’re screwed. Instead of getting a billion or two for a depreciating asset, we’ll be lucky if we don’t have to pay someone to take it over.
That’s what might have happened had the voters rejected the Memorial Health Systems/UC Health deal. As a stand-alone municipal health provider, Memorial’s very survival was in question. By approving the lease, voters ensured that one of the city’s crown jewels would survive and thrive, and that our two nonprofit giants would continue to provide extraordinary health care to residents of the Pikes Peak region.
Requiring a supermajority for any substantial sale or disposal of utilities may be the electoral equivalent of malware, a rogue program designed to cripple your computer at a particularly inopportune time.
As voters, we can be smart and we can be dumb. But our municipal democracy, majority rule is simple, appropriate and usually works out. So come April 4, don’t click the malware link.