In his October 3rd guest opinion in the Gazette, Colorado Springs City Councilman Scott Hente once again tries to obfuscate and pettifog his way to victory at the ballot box by dishonestly maligning Douglas Bruce and trying to hoodwink the voters.
In his letter, Hente says, “Issue 300 would eventually prohibit payments from any enterprise to the City. This includes legitimate payments for efficient shared services such as accounting, legal assistance, fleet maintenance, audits, and other necessary services. The biggest impact would be the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) made by Colorado Springs Utilities. One of the important underpinnings of why Colorado Springs Utilities has been able to deliver below average costs for utilities is its unique culture of running like a business. The PILT is an accounting entry that appropriately charges the Utilities and its rate payers for the services it receives and the taxes it would pay if it were a private business.”
So, let’s get this straight. According to the Colorado Springs Utility’s own website, “…in 1924 the residents of Colorado Springs voted to create a four-service utility of the people, by the people and for the people. Since then, as a municipal utility, our focus has been on the basics – providing exceptional customer service while keeping costs low.”
The taxpayers paid to create the public utility system to provide “the basics” at “low cost.” The whole point of creating the publicly-owned utilities system was precisely so that it would NOT be run “like a business,” because private businesses have costs associated with them that increase the price of the service and goods to the consumer, among which are profit and taxes. These two consumer costs alone are the major reason why taxpayers paid to create the utilities in the first place.
But City Council figured out that the utilities, if run “like a business” could provide a cash-cow of slush-fund revenue for the Council to play with without the impediment of actually obeying TABOR and asking the voters for a tax increase.
That’s what the PILT structure Hente talks about is all about. This is an “accounting entry,” as Hente describes it, that levies the equivalent of a sales tax on the services provided to the public by a publicly-owned utility. It’s actually an accounting fiction used by the Council to boost General Fund tax revenues without a vote because no vote is required to raise the utility rates to cover the cost of the “payments in lieu of taxes.”
This is just robbing Peter to pay Paul, and it’s an egregious example of the corruption and greed in City Hall, and amply demonstrates the ongoing attempts to deliberately defy the mandate of TABOR, which is quite simply that the City must ask the voters to approve all new taxes.
It utterly defies common sense that one hand of the city is charging the other hand a sales tax on providing city residents with services from the city-owned utilities that the citizens paid to build precisely in order to avoid having to pay sales taxes on their utility payments in the first place. The whole point of a city-owned utility system is to free the citizens from the profit-based market forces that raise the costs of essential infrastructure services like water, sewer and electricity and to keep costs low by eliminating both the profit and the tax burdens associated with private industry.
Which means that Hente has just illuminated precisely why Issue 300 should be passed by the voters. Removing the ability of the city to treat publicly-owned utilities like a “business” and forcing them to run it like publicly-owned infrastructure by not collecting excess fees through accounting chicanery is a very good idea.
Now on to the rest of Hente’s carping:
“To make matters worse,” Hente writes, “the ballot language in 300 is vague and can be interpreted many ways – the proponent of Issue 300 has already filed a lawsuit against the City because he did not like one word in the ballot heading language.”
Mr. Bruce disagrees, and so do I. The ballot language is painfully clear and precise, and his objection to the rewording of the ballot title language was perfectly appropriate and reasonable in light of the Council’s attempt to manipulate the language to its benefit. All the Council had to do was leave the ballot title alone and no lawsuit would have been filed by Mr. Bruce, so the blame lies with the Council.
Hente continues his scaremongering and pettifoggery, writing, “Just imagine the lawsuits he will file … concerning part of his own language in the initiative… Will that mean that the Airport or the Hospital will have to hire their own police force? That the utility employees will not be able to share an insurance pool with the City employees? How efficient is that?”
Well, I guess the City will just have to dissolve the “enterprise” system entirely, which it should do, and return those public assets and infrastructure to their proper place as city-owned (which means owned by the people of Colorado Springs, not the Council) utilities and services, which will bring all the employees back under the City’s general employment umbrella, thus resolving any such issues with a simple stroke of the pen.
“One thing for sure,” Hente whines, “Mr. Bruce will sue for his own interpretation no matter what!”
As well he should when the City constantly tries to weasel around the very simple dictates of TABOR: If you need money, then ask us for it.
Any difficulty that the Council has in obtaining permission to levy a tax has to do with the lack of trust in the Council on the part of taxpayers, who are sick and tired of the attempts at evasion of TABOR and the rampant corruption in City Hall. If council wants to repair that breach of trust, it merely needs to act as humble representatives of, by, and for the People, not as arrogant and tyrannical rulers who think that they know better than the People do what is best for them.
It’s really quite simple: Just figure out what money is really needed and for what projects, be specific in the ballot language as to exactly how the collected tax money will be used, and then expend that money honestly and wisely on the project it’s been promised to, and the voters will begin loosening the purse strings again.
Just take a look at the People’s Republic of Boulder for a great example of how this works: The City of Boulder’s Charter states that money collected for open space purposes may ONLY be used for open space purchases and acquisitions. It cannot even be used for maintenance or administration, just acquisitions. As a result, no open space bond issue has ever been turned down by the voters, because they both value the open space program, and they know that the money they pay cannot be misused or diverted to pet pork projects of corrupt councilpersons.
I am loathe to suggest that Colorado Springs take any advice from Boulder, but in this case, I must, because the principle is so simple that even an idiot can understand it.
Politicians, on the other hand, seem to have difficulty with the concepts of restraint, honesty, adherence to fiduciary duty and respect for their positions as public servants.
© Altnews 2009