City Council hesitant because of economy, ambiguity of proposal
By MIKE WIGGINS
A majority of Grand Junction City Council members say they are not inclined to return to voters in November with a revamped tax measure to fund the construction of new public safety buildings.
Questioned by The Daily Sentinel, council members Bonnie Beckstein, Tom Kenyon, Gregg
Palmer and Bill Pitts cited issues such as the sagging economy, lingering uncertainty about what a revamped proposal might look like, and a quickly approaching legal deadline to formulate a ballot question.
The Daily Sentinel polled the seven council members, asking whether and when they thought a second initiative should be placed on the ballot, apfter defeat in November of a $98 million proposal, which asked for a quarter-cent sales-tax increase and a revenue-collection override of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
Council members also were asked whether a second initiative should be scaled back and, if so, what elements in the original proposal should be removed. The $98 million project would have included a new police station, a new Fire Station No. 1, a 911 dispatch center, a municipal courtroom, an emergency operations center, an annex building for evidence storage, a parking garage and three neighborhood fire stations.
The council last month tentatively shed the annex building, parking garage and one of the neighborhood fire stations from the project, saving perhaps $30 million to $40 million. The board is scheduled to meet again Monday, less than three weeks before the Aug. 19 deadline for November ballot titles to be set, to determine its next steps regarding a potential reincarnation of the public safety initiative.
Here’s what council members told the Sentinel:
Beckstein said she would prefer to put another question on the ballot during a non-general election year — 2009 is one of those years — because it wouldn’t get lost in a jumble of candidate races, amendments and other ballot measures. But she isn’t sure voters would support an initiative now, given the state of the economy.
“Right now I have a lot of concerns about it,” she said. “I just don’t know if it’s the right time for it right now.”
Beckstein said the council needs to listen to the community and proceed carefully.
She cited the parking garage and the municipal court as elements she would cut out but said she wouldn’t be comfortable eliminating one of the neighborhood fire stations.
Coons said she is conflicted about whether the city should put a question to voters in a little more than three months.
“I think eventually we will need to do that,” she said of putting forward a ballot measure. “I don’t want us as council to lose sight of the importance of this issue, but at this moment in time I have mixed feelings about November.”
She said she thinks the city needs to test the “political winds” to find out whether a tax increase would pass.
“What I don’t want to see is us putting another ballot measure out there and having it fail again,” she said.
Coons, the mayor pro tem, said residents have made it clear they won’t exempt the city from TABOR revenue limitations, and she said it makes sense to eliminate the municipal court and parking garage.
The mayor deferred when asked for his thoughts, saying he has an opinion on the timing of a second ballot issue but prefers to act as a facilitator for the council when it discusses the direction it should take.
“I’m trying to be careful in my role in not really pushing one way or the other,” Hill said. “I’m trying to create a good environment for council to have constructive dialogue about what we should do.”
The first-year council member said the majority of the people he has talked to agree new police and fire buildings are important but balk at a tax increase.
“People say, ‘Now’s not the right time’ because of the recession, because their businesses are struggling,” he said. “Why should the city step over and ask for more (tax money) when we’re less capable of paying than ever before?”
Kenyon also noted that the City Council has yet to solidify what a revised project might look like.
He said, though, that if a measure isn’t placed on the ballot this fall, the city “absolutely” has to seek to fund some portion of new construction in November 2010.
Regardless of when another question is asked, Kenyon said, the city has to drastically reduce the scope of the project.
The public safety initiative “needs to come back in a form that’s a lot more balanced than the last one,” he said. “A lot needs to come out of it. The cost needs to come way down.”
Kenyon said he didn’t think the main public safety center proposed last fall was opulent, but at the same time “it gave opportunities to opponents to say, ‘You didn’t think this out well.’ ”
While emphasizing that the city’s public safety needs will grow more critical with the passage of time, Palmer said he is loathe to use that as a reason to rush a proposal to the voters.
He said he believes city officials aren’t yet ready to try again at the ballot box. He said the council has a lot of work to do to hammer out the details of a revised public safety initiative, and he noted that the potential for Clifton and Fruitvale to annex into the city could change the scope of the project.
“When we go back to the voters, I want to take them a project that is very clear, very concise, very detailed in its scope and ask a very specific question with a dollar sign and an ending date (on a sales-tax increase). I don’t know that we can get to that (by Aug. 19),” Palmer said.
“I guess the bottom line is I want to do it right and not do it fast. I feel sorry for those officers crammed into a building built in 1958 ... but it’s important to do it right, not do it quickly.”
Pitts responded with one word when asked if a second tax measure should go to the voters in November.
“The times we’re in, I don’t think it’s the time to go back, because we defeated it and our economy is no better (now) than it was last November,” the first-year council member said. “I think it’s a bad issue to go back.
“I’m not going to deny the fact that we need it. I’ve gone down there (to the police station). I’ve seen it. But I think to bring it right back after it was defeated the last time, even at a reduced cost of $50 million or $60 million, it’s not going to pass.”
Pitts said he thinks the city will have to build in stages.
LINDA ROMER TODD
Like Coons, Todd said she has “mixed feelings” on whether to return to voters a year later. Ultimately, though, she said, she’s in favor of placing a measure on the ballot in November “with the right education to the public.”
Todd said although the economy is down, “My thought is that’s the one time the government should be out there doing major projects.” She noted projects such as the Hoover Dam, built during the Great Depression, were spearheaded by the government.
She said the city would not only be putting people to work who might otherwise be out of a job, but it would save money on construction costs.
Todd declined to talk about portions of the project she thinks could be delayed or eliminated until the council formally meets and discusses the issue, saying there are “too many options.”