Sallie Clark, who’s running for Colorado Springs mayor, took an action as an El Paso County commissioner 14 years ago that’s cost the city dearly — to the tune of at least $28 million.
For perspective, that’s more than the city spent last year from the general fund for the Planning and Community Development Department and Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services combined.
Another mayoral candidate in the April 4 city election, Wayne Williams, also served as a county commissioner at that time and voted against the measure.
It was December 2008, and Clark had just won the second of her three terms as an El Paso County commissioner. (More on that later.)
The Great Recession of 2007-09 was taking a toll on all local governments, including the county, so Clark and other commissioners were looking for ways to ease the financial pressure.
One way to do that, a majority decided, was to use a maneuver in which the county shifted funds designated for roads and bridges into the general fund, including a portion that for years had been shared with eight municipalities — including Colorado Springs — and reduce the share given to cities and towns.
Before the change, the city had received roughly $3 million a year from the road and bridge property tax mill levy. The county’s action cut the city’s share by at least $2 million a year, city Chief Financial Officer Charae McDaniel says via email.
But Clark defends her action, saying she acted “in the best interest of everyone.”
In December 2008, commissioners passed the county’s 2009 budget by a 4-1 vote, reducing municipalities’ share of road and bridge money and increasing the county’s funding.
Those voting with Clark were Jim Bensberg, Amy Lathen and Dennis Hisey.
The fifth commissioner, Williams, voted against the budget, though he voted for subsequent years’ county budgets that contained the change.
Williams tells Sixty35 news magazine the 2008 vote on the 2009 budget was the only time in his eight years as a commissioner that he voted “no” on a county budget.
“I remember there was one budget I voted against because that cut road and bridge funding,” he says.
A transcript of that meeting provided by Williams shows he had this concern: “This proposes to, in effect, take 3 million [dollars] away from taxes that were specifically paid for road and bridge purposes to spend on a budget that is not sustainable over time.”
Williams, in his bid for mayor in the April 4 city election, has won the endorsement of incumbent Mayor John Suthers.
McDaniel says while commissioners must share some of the road and bridge mill levy money with cities and towns under state law, “What they did is reduce the mill levy (and therefore the funding) for R&B. This cut the revenues of the City of Colorado Springs by almost three million dollars in 2009.”
Before the decrease, the city received about $3 million a year, she says. “So in the last 14 years, it has been about $2 million less per year, which would equal about $28 million,” she says.
‘I thought they robbed from Colorado Springs....’
— Scott Hente
‘Everyone was feeling pain, including the county.’
— Sallie Clark
In the last three years — 2020, 2021 and 2022 — the city received a combined total of about $2.9 million, the equivalent of one year’s proceeds before commissioners’ 2008 budget maneuver.
The recession spurred the county to lay off employees due to falling revenues. The city also cut hundreds of jobs and millions from its budget. The parks department alone suffered a drastic cut from $19.9 million to roughly $3 million, and imposed fee increases on youth sports and other programs.
Mayor Lionel Rivera, the last mayor to serve before the city switched to a strong mayor/council form of government in 2011, delivered his “State of the City” address in June 2010, the cuts still fresh in his mind.
“I’m also asking our County Commissioners to reconsider their recent decision to reduce the County’s road and bridge mill levy and increase their general fund mill levy,” Rivera said in his speech.
“The effect of that policy decision was the reduction of $2.5 million annually from Colorado Springs’ historical allocation of road and bridge funds and transferring it to the County’s general fund. Those funds have historically been allocated to all the cities in the County for road and bridge infrastructure and I’m confident all my Mayoral colleagues would like it restored,” he added.
Scott Hente served as a Council member at that time and remembers the budgetary struggle, exacerbated by the commissioners’ action.
“It was a tough time for all local governments, county and city,” he tells Sixty35. “And it didn’t seem to me the way to help us out was to rob Peter to pay Paul. I thought they robbed from Colorado Springs to enhance the county’s financial position. I thought we were all in this together. I do not see how them taking from us to help them was working together.”
So why is this an important local history lesson now?
“I think it’s important which candidates put the city of Colorado Springs first and acted in the best interest of Colorado Springs, and I don’t think taking the money from Colorado Springs acted in the city’s best interest,” he says. Hente has yet to endorse anyone in the mayor’s race.
Clark says in one answer to questions on Sixty35’s candidate questionnaire, “Our partnership with El Paso County and the commissioners is paramount to ensure that our roads are maintained.”
Clark served as a commissioner from 2005 to 2017. She won a third term after commissioners submitted a deceptively worded ballot measure to voters asking to “limit” commissioners to three four-year terms. The law at that time limited commissioners to two four-year terms.
After voters discovered they’d been misled, they demanded a do-over. Commissioners obliged and subsequently resubmitted a new question, which resulted in voters rolling back the limit to two terms. But Clark and Hisey had already won their third terms, which increased the size of their county pensions.
Clark’s budget vote took place in December 2008, shortly after she won her second term in office.
Asked about that budget vote, Clark tells Sixty35 that there’s no mandate that the county share the road and bridge money, though McDaniel calls it “a statutory requirement.”
“Everyone was feeling pain, including the county,” Clark says, noting the reduction in the road and bridge money given to cities was an effort to “spread it [the pain] out.”
She also says that as a commissioner, “I had to look at it from a county perspective, which is a regional government. I had to make sure we had a jail, to be sure we could prosecute the crimes happening in the city limits. I was doing what I thought was in the best interest of everyone at that time, given the recession was upon us, so we could fund the Sheriff’s Office and the DA’s Office and we could keep making sure kids were safe, and fund all the things that were necessary. This was one of the few tools available to us to fill those gaps.”
In any event, she says, “This was 15 years ago. A lot has changed in 15 years. We have to look at what is in front of us to move forward.”