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Mar 14, 2013 9:53 PM by Andy Koen

Mayor and county split over big issues

COLORADO SPRINGS - There is a growing rift between Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach and elected leaders in El Paso County over how to solve some of our community's biggest problems. Conflicts have come up recently over storm water, ambulance service and even roads and bridges.

The mayor says he needs to have flexibility in an era of financial scarcity to make the best choices for the city with the funds he has available.

"Change is hard," Bach said. "I will just tell you that the era of the good old boys and girls club is over."

El Paso County Commissioner Dennis Hisey says Bach's decisions are undoing agreements that have been in place for years.

"We were told that before we went to the strong mayor form of government, that the first term - no matter who was elected - the first term was going to be all about figuring out how it works and they were right," Hisey said.

The ambulance contract is a good example of how deep the rift goes. Last week, the city broke away from the 18 year partnership forged under the Emergency Services Agency. The board has no taxing authority as was formed to secure an ambulance contract that ensures a standard of service across jurisdictional boundaries.

Mayor Bach believes the city can get a better deal, but didn't have enough bargaining power under the ESA to make that happen.

"We (the city) represent 85 percent of the calls and yet we only have two votes out of 12," Bach said.

Hisey worries the break up could harm his constituents, especially those living in Hanover.

"I didn't have a good answer for them.," Hisey said. "They didn't really want to hear that they need to have a friend with a pick up truck to throw them in the back of when the get injured so they can find their way into town."

Bach call that argument "a straw man" and says the city can require an ambulance contractor to provide service to the county and other communities as part of any new agreement. The mayor expects to begin the bidding process for that ambulance contract in about a month.

At his monthly news conference in February, Bach made clear his desire to not be a part of a regional storm water entity. He called the regional solution a "buzz word" that is code for a new tax.

"Some of my fellow politicians want to put (a new tax) in front of the public; I am not going to support that," Bach said.

Hisey disagrees.

"It's way to early to be saying that there's going to be a new tax, it's way too early to say anything is off the table," he said. "If we're really serious about the solution, we've got to look at all of our options."

A few hours after his news conference, city council delayed a decision on a joint resolution with the county over storm water until after the April 2 city elections. Then, last week, the mayor announced he was seeking a second opinion on the cost of city's storm water needs. A survey conducted on behalf of the city/county joint storm water task force raised the estimate of city needs from $500 million to $686 million.

"I felt it was prudent to get an expedited second look at the scope of our priorities on storm water from an independent engineering firm," Bach said.

Hisey says cooperation over storm water would largely benefits the city since most of the city's run-off actually begins in the foothills of unincorporated El Paso County. The mayor agrees that cooperation is needed but says it can happen at the project level rather than under an new umbrella organization.

"Monument already has indicated to me they have no interest in a regional, a new bureaucracy, growing government or a regional tax," Bach said. "Woodland Park already has their own storm water fees, so does Manitou Springs; right there we don't have a united front, so to speak."

Roads and bridges are another sticking point. The mayor feels the city isn't get enough money back out of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority for what it pays in through sales taxes.

"Eighty-nine percent of all the sales tax that is raised for PPRTA gets raised in the City of Colorado Springs," Bach said. "We're getting 67 percent of the spending within the city."

But Hisey points out most of the county's 200,000 residents pay those same city sales taxes.

"I would venture to say every single family that lives outside of Colorado Springs has shopped inside of Colorado Springs," Hisey said.

Voters overwhelmingly supported an extension of the PPRTA one percent sales tax in November. The Milton Proby Parkway project ($55.4 million), the overpass at Austin Bluffs and Union Boulevard ($35.8 million) and the Cimarron Bridge replacement ($8.5 million) are among the list of capital improvement projects in the city that were paid for by the PPRTA. Additionally, the PPRTA is credited with getting the $43 million overpass project at Woodmen and Academy funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act because it was considered "shovel ready."

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