They may sometimes have their differences, but the mayors of seven jurisdictions from Monument to Pueblo agree that many of the issues they face require cooperative, regional solutions.
“I’m very aware as the mayor of Colorado Springs that what happens in Colorado Springs, particularly in terms of economic development, impacts our surrounding communities,” Mayor John Suthers said at the 2019 Mayors Panel luncheon, sponsored by the Business Journal and Nunn Construction. The event, held July 25 at The Pinery at the Hill, drew a sold-out crowd of 180 people.
“It’s very important that we have lines of communication between our communities, our staffs as well as ourselves, to be talking about a variety of issues — growth, emergency response, all sorts of things,” Suthers said.
Growth, transportation, traffic, water, funding and the environment emerged as common issues as the mayors, including Nick Gradisar of Pueblo, Ken Jaray of Manitou Springs, Neil Levy of Woodland Park, Jane Newberry of Green Mountain Falls, Don Wilson of Monument, and Gabriel Ortega of Fountain, talked about their biggest challenges.
Suthers said one of his highest priorities is settling the stormwater case against Colorado Springs. Federal and state agencies, joined by Pueblo County and the Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, sued the city in 2016 over stormwater violations that allegedly caused increases in E. coli levels, erosion and flooding downstream.
“We’ve made tremendous progress in fixing our stormwater system,” he said. “But that’s the one lingering albatross that I would love to resolve in the next six months.”
Suthers said the city will be asking Colorado Springs voters in November to approve a renewal for five more years of the 2C sales tax for road improvements.
“Five years ago, 60 percent of our roads were in poor condition,” Suthers said. “We’re now down to 48 percent. … Give us another five years, and we’ll be down to 38 percent.”
Suthers said he anticipates asking for a 0.57 percent rate, lower than the current 0.62 percent tax that expires in 2020.
The city will also ask voters to allow retention of $7 million in TABOR overage from 2018 to put into parks capital projects.
“We have a parks capital backlog that probably is in the neighborhood of $100 million,” Suthers said.
He would support a 0.05 percent increase in the 0.10 percent sales tax for maintenance of trails, open space and parks, which expires in 2025, as well as an increase in the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax that funds tourism marketing and events that attract visitors, Suthers said.
“[The LART tax] is 2 percent,” he said. “It is by far and away the lowest I’ve ever heard of, particularly in a tourism economy. … I would support an increase from 2 percent to 4 percent.”
A LART tax increase might be a hard sell, Suthers acknowledged. He estimated it would cost $500,000 to $1 million to educate citizens about the tax, which is paid almost entirely by nonresidents.
Suthers called upon the other mayors to join him in getting the state to invest in improvements to state roads such as Highway 94, which he views as crucial to confronting growth in the region.
“I’m starting to feel a lot better about the willingness of our local voters to invest in public infrastructure, but I have very serious concerns about the willingness of the state of Colorado,” he said.
PUEBLO AND MANITOU
“I’m looking forward to learning from these more experienced mayors about how things operate and certainly will seek your advice,” said Gradisar, Pueblo’s first mayor in 80 years, who took office in February after the city switched from a city manager form of government.
Getting the new strong mayor system off to a good start is a high priority, he said, adding that “one of the first calls I made was to Mayor Suthers, who was gracious enough to sit down to chat with me and has made his staff available for my staff as well.”
Gradisar agreed that growth is a regional concern, but said Pueblo has the opposite problem.
“We haven’t shared in the rest of Colorado’s growth,” Gradisar said. “One of the visions I have is to have an economy in Pueblo where the young people who want to stay in Pueblo aren’t forced to leave Pueblo in order to earn a living.”
Increasing attainable housing in the downtown Union Avenue area is another priority, Gradisar said.
Manitou Springs’ most pressing concerns are “transportation and mobility and dealing with the number of people that like to come to our community,” Jaray said. “Where do we put people’s cars, get them out of their cars, provide them with the last mile of transportation, and help them enjoy our community?”
Jaray, who has indicated he would not seek a second two-year term, said he plans to focus more effort on the environment in the time he has left before his term expires in January.
“We need to focus on air quality and water quality, … and we need to focus on that issue as a region,” he said.
He challenged the other mayors to join him in “planting the number of trees that we are old. So Colorado Springs is 147 years old.”
If all of the seven cities did that, a total of 995 trees would be planted, Jaray said.
“I’d like to do it as an annual program,” he said. “In 10 years, we will have 10,000 trees.”
Asked by an audience member about how Manitou is dealing with the teen vaping epidemic, Jaray said Partners for Healthy Choices brings together groups and individuals to address both teen vaping and marijuana use. Revenue from Manitou’s two retail marijuana stores goes in part to support the organization, which is connected with School District 14.
Peer pressure is one of the strategies the organization promotes, “but it’s not an easy task,” Jaray said.
Woodland Park shares Manitou’s concerns and challenges with transportation and traffic, Levy said.
“Highway 24 is a pathway to the west, and so everybody’s not going to stop, no matter what we have to offer,” he said. “People come into the Woodland Park area for things like hunting and fishing and camping and biking and the tremendous trails that we have. So we stop them in that regard. How we stop them for retail and for other things in town has always been a $64,000 question. Promoting the great things that we have is the first obvious step.”
Like all of the communities that interface with wildlands, Newberry said, Green Mountain Falls is trying to solve challenges with wildfires and flooding through partnerships and joint efforts that include working toward healthier forests.
“We don’t have enough money to do everything we want to do,” she said. “But I think our biggest challenge … is we get in our own way.
“We spend a lot of time thinking why we can’t do something, what our roadblocks are. … We need to remember that we have partners up and down the Front Range that can and will help us. I think we need to change that ‘I can’t, because’ into ‘we can and we will.’”
MONUMENT AND FOUNTAIN
Monument’s most crucial issue is water, Wilson said.
“Monument relies on wells for the most part, and we need to work on getting other options,” he said. One option is a local water authority, which would consolidate individual water districts in northern El Paso County.
Another pressing issue is a lack of housing that’s affordable for people like teachers, firefighters, police and retirees.
“We see a need for more workforce-style housing,” he said. “We’re not going to get the newest, brightest teachers if they can’t buy homes.”
Water issues also have hit Fountain hard, Ortega said. Fountain’s drinking water was contaminated by toxic chemicals that were traced to firefighting foam from Peterson Air Force Base.
Colorado’s senators and congressional representatives have joined Fountain in working with the Air Force to deal with the contamination. Meanwhile, “we’re bringing clean water to our citizens,” Ortega said. “I think we’re in a good spot.”
Road maintenance is another issue Fountain faces.
Ortega said a citizens group has been formed to evaluate moving to a single-hauler trash program to minimize damage from multiple trucks.
He said another citizens group is investigating the possibility of a property tax similar to Widefield’s that would enable the two communities to build an all-inclusive recreation facility — “one of the things our citizens have been asking for.”
Answering a question about whether Fountain gets its fair share of economic development, Ortega drew a big laugh from the audience when he alluded to an exchange between himself and Suthers at the first mayors panel four years ago.
“If you ask Mayor Suthers, he’s still pretty upset with me about our Sam’s and Walmart,” Ortega said. “He always says, ‘You stole Walmart.’ We didn’t steal Walmart. We stole Sam’s; we added a Walmart.”
But he said Suthers’ leadership has helped to build collaboration among the cities on efforts like an industrial rail project by the Nixon power plant and opportunity zones in the northern part of Fountain.
“I think using all of our collective uniquenesses of our communities … has really helped to bring whatever we dream here in the region,” he said.