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Local mayors share pandemic challenges and strategies

Posted at 5:40 PM, Jul 23, 2020

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — It was a power lunch with the elected executives from five local communities. The mayors of Colorado Springs, Fountain, Monument, Manitou Springs, and Woodland Park all shared their individual challenges in overcoming the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said he's already cut the budget by $22 million because of pandemic-related revenue shortages.

"The biggest factor in that has been a hiring freeze," Suthers said. "We have 200 less employees today than we did at the end of last year, that's a lot of money."

The council pulled another $3 million from reserves and Suthers said the City could take out up to $10 million from savings before reaching the minimum recommended threshold according to accounting best practices.

Mayor Suthers warned the so-called "ratchet effect" of the TABOR Amendment will require the City to keep a lower budget in 2021 if the economy rebounds quickly.

That ratchet is caused by the growth cap in the Taxpayers Bill of Rights. State and local governments must refund any revenue they collect which exceeds the previous year's revenue plus an additional amount equivalent to population growth plus inflation.

Since city revenue is dropping this year compared to 2019, the 2021 budget would ratchet down to the lower base.

"We will probably ask the voters in November to allow us not to have to ratchet down to 2020, but to keep the 2019 base," Suthers said.

It's not all bad news. The strong housing market and construction activity spurred by regional population growth have helped buoy many communities. Fountain Mayor Gabriel Ortega said that development fees generated from the construction industry stabilized his city's revenue.

"Our planning department has still been very busy during all of this and ensuring that they're meeting as much of the needs as possible when we have developers and such coming in," Ortega said.

Sales tax revenues from large retailers and big-box stores have stayed strong during the pandemic, but small businesses are struggling.

Don Wilson, Mayor of the Town of Monument, said he and the town council decided to give away $300,000 of their $554,000 in federal relief funds received through the CARES-Act. They will award grants to small businesses in $10,000 increments as relief for having to keep their doors closed for multiple weeks.

"The idea behind this was not the short term of the town needs money, but the long term of what's going to keep our community thriving," Wilson said.

Manitou Springs Mayor John Graham said his city leans heavily on its tourism industry. They too shared a portion of their relief funds with local businesses, but Graham hopes local visitors will spend more time and money here.

"I think our market now is people who live within a three-hour drive of Manitou Springs," he said. "So, that's where our focus I think is going to be near term."

Likewise, Woodland Park Mayor Val Carr wants folks who live in cities along the Front Range to spend more time "in" the City Above the Clouds to help their struggling mom and pops.

"Our traffic through town is just like it is every year right now, but it's through town," he said. "Getting them to stop is our constant challenge."