Photo by Bob Stephens
Photo by Bob Stephens

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers wants more police officers and firefighters. City council agrees, but also wants to add more bus service and watering in city parks. All will likely be approved when the 2018 city budget is finalized Dec. 12.

Suthers submitted his proposed 2018 budget to city council on Oct. 3, as required, but offered a revised plan following the Nov. 7 election when ballot issue 2A was passed by voters to initiate a stormwater fee.

That fee will generate approximately $17 million annually for the next 20 years, and thus frees up that much from the city’s general fund.

The city won’t begin collecting the stormwater fee until July 2018, so the revised budget only has an additional $7 million available, said Colorado Springs Chief Financial Officer Charae McDaniel.

Suthers’ revised budget will add 20 police officers, eight firefighters and two fire code inspectors, while also reinstating funding of $500,000 each for police and fire vehicles, which was trimmed from the initial budget “to get in balance,” McDaniel said.

About $2.2 million will be added to the fund balance — in effect, the city savings account — and roofs will be fixed at the City Auditorium and the Memorial Park Recreation Center.

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“That’s pretty much what [Suthers] told us he would ask for,” said City Council President Richard Skorman.

Suthers had asked for $2.7 million to be added to the fund balance but council countered his revised budget with two additional items of its own — $300,000 for transit service and $200,000 for the parks water budget, both passing by 9-0 votes — which lowered the contribution to the savings account.

Both sides appear to be in agreement that there will be no further alterations. Suthers could veto what council sent him, but then council could override that veto if at least six of its nine members were in agreement.

“I’m pleased that the council has embraced the need to significantly increase police and fire staffing over the next several years, beginning with the 2018 budget,” Suthers said in an emailed response. “I have no issues with the small budget modifications that have thus far been proposed by the council, including additional transit spending.”

SMOOTHER PROCESS

City Councilor and Budget Committee Chairman Don Knight and councilor Merv Bennett both said the budget process has improved since Suthers was elected in May 2015.

“When I came on council almost seven years ago, the process was more lengthy and contentious,” Bennett said. “Now it’s smoother, more efficient and more effective. When Mayor [Steve] Bach was in office, we weren’t allowed to be part of the process until the budget was presented to us. Now the budget process starts in June with both the mayor’s office and council members present. It’s a better process when you’re working as a team.”

Not that everyone agrees on where money should be spent.

“Probably each of the council members would’ve ranked something else No. 1 instead of what the mayor did with police and firefighter positions,” Knight said, “but we understand the decision he had to make. We’ve had both formal and informal conversations. There has been open communication. [Suthers] was very structured and I respect that.”

Suthers and Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey agree that 100 cops need to be added over the next several years to reduce response times and ensure officer safety.

Suthers said in October that police response times are 11.5 minutes and the goal is 8 minutes. There are 14 police officers for every 10,000 citizens and Suthers said that ratio should be at 17 or 18 per 10,000.

“That would provide more backup for officers on a call, especially in a dangerous situation,” Skorman said. “There has been an uptick in violent crimes in recent months.”

PARKS GET MORE MONEY

Suthers’ initial 640-page budget included pay raises for cops and city employees, along with replacing some of the city’s fleet and increasing the parks maintenance budget.

“We got an extra $900,000 [for parks] in the original budget,” Skorman said, but called it a “Band-aid for what we really need.”

The parks’ general fund portion is $1.3 million less than it was in 2009, according to McDaniel. But the 2018 overall parks budget is up $7.5 million from a year ago, to about $45 million.

The $300,000 transit increase will change the frequency of Mountain Metropolitan Transit bus route No. 27 — which goes from Pikes Peak Community College on South Academy to The Citadel mall transfer center — from every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes.

Councilor Yolanda Avila, who represents the city’s southeast sector, fought for that addition to the budget. She’s also getting bus route No. 1 — which goes from Hancock Plaza to the Downtown Terminal — increased from a 30-minute frequency to 15 minutes, thanks to $1.4 million in funds provided by the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, a local tax that helps fix roads and bridges as well as aiding transit.

More buses will be added to each route to effect those changes in frequency of service. Those buses won’t arrive until late summer of 2018, according to Craig Blewitt, the city’s transit services manager, who said the increased service will go into effect in October.

“Both transit and parks are critical issues, but we can’t do much until we start collecting [the stormwater fee] in July,” Bennett said.

Skorman said the parks watering budget got upside down this year due to dry conditions in September and October.

“Parks had to pull money from other areas to keep watering,” he said. “So we put more in the budget for next year. The mayor and some on council would like even more set aside. We hope that [Colorado Springs Utilities] will offer a discounted rate like some other cities get, but that would be a utilities board decision.”

Even with the stormwater fee, there just isn’t enough money to cover everything, Knight said.

“We have more needs than we have budget,” he said. “But this has been a good process.”