COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - (WEDNESDAY)
In a historic and unexpected development, the Colorado Springs City Council changed its vote late Tuesday on allocating money from a local tourism tax to the Olympic Museum project.
City Hall staff said it's the first time in recent memory the council voted on the same agenda item twice in the same meeting.
Councilwoman Jill Gaebler said after the council initially voted 5-4 against allocating $500,000 to the project over three years, Councilman Keith King had a brief private meeting with Jeff Greene, chief of staff for Mayor John Suthers.
"When Keith came back to the council chambers, he asked for a reconsideration of the vote," Gaebler said. "We are allowed to do that, but it rarely happens."
King and Greene were unavailable for comment Wednesday, but some council members believe Greene offered to expedite fire repairs in Bancroft Park in return for King switching his vote.
In council remarks before the initial vote, King several times mentioned the slow fire recovery in the park as a reason to vote against the museum allocation.
"The LART tax (on lodging and car rentals) is paid primarily by tourists but the revenue is for local uses," King said. "I see Bancroft Park being as important as the Olympic Museum."
The council voted on the matter again and with King's changed vote, the margin was 5-4 in favor of the museum allocation..
The vote came after most of the audience and TV news crews left.
"I'm disappointed that Mr. King changed his vote," Gaebler said. "I think it's part of the public process that we need to honor, the rules and our city code, that is allowed. But I think it does give an impression that there was coercion on the city's part to get a council member to change his vote at the last minute."
Several voters agree with Gaebler.
"It seems like politics as usual," said Rex Barber. "I wish they would have stayed with their first vote."
"Back-door deals are never a good thing," said Robyn Parker.
Councilman Bill Murray, the strongest critic of the museum issue, did not respond to interview requests Wednesday.
The Colorado Springs City Council approved allocating $250,000 to the plan to build a new summit house on Pikes Peak, but rejected giving $500,000 over three years for the proposed Olympic Museum.
The summit house vote was 6-3 but the museum vote was 5-4.
Opposing council members repeated their concern that revenue from the local LART tax on hotels and rental cars would go to a privately funded project, even though council proponents and an advisory committee said the money would be repaid many times over in increased tourism spending.
"They felt this was right in the sweet spot of why the LART exists, what it's for and why it should be used for something that's going to spur and drive greater tourism and visitors in our community," Councilman Tom Strand said.
But council members Keith King and Jill Gaebler said they would rather see the money spent on other city needs, such as parks maintenance.
"Three years ago, many of us made a promise that we would not spend any local tax dollars on any of the City for Champions projects without a vote of the people," Gaebler said. "I'm keeping that promise."
Councilman Bill Murray was highly critical of museum organizers, saying their project application incorrectly shows they have reached their private fundraising goal of $26 million.
Organizers are still $2.5 million short of their March 31 goal to qualify for state funds to finance the balance of the $75 million project.
Richard Celeste, chairman of the museum board, said he was disappointed in the council's vote but accepted it.
"We want to get this museum fully funded and break ground as soon as we can this spring," he said.
Celeste said the board plans to start a public fundraising campaign soon.
"Part of the cost is pre-opening expenses and all the things that are necessary to kick the museum off in a world-class way," he said. "I think we'll get more public support as people see the museum going up."
In other business, the council unanimously approved a request from Mayor John Suthers to keep up to $6 million in excess city revenue, this year and next, to pay for stormwater projects.
A wide range of matters was on the agenda for a City Council work session Monday.
Several of the agenda items involved spending money on city projects. Among them:
*$550,000 as part of a $2.8 million project with the state to replace three bridges along North Cheyenne Cañon Road
*$250,000 for a new Pikes Peak Summit House and $200,000 for an Olympic Museum from a tax on hotels and rental cars
*$2.5 million for repairing damage related to last summer's hailstorms and the January 2017 wind event
*$570,000 from the Conservation Trust Fund for six repair projects affecting Sinton Trail, Sertich Ice Center and other facilities.
The money for the summit house and museum comes from excess revenue in the LART tax -- a city tax on lodging and rental cars. An advisory committee overseeing the tax said it increased 16 percent last year because of the local tourism boom.
The committee actually wants to allocate a total of $500,000 to the museum during the next three years, emphasizing the museum will generate at least $500,000 annually in additional tourism revenue.
But several council members expressed concern that the project remains $4 million short of its $26 million goal as a March 31 deadline approaches.
"I can't support funding a private project right now, as we are struggling so much to fund so much of our public realm, like parks," Councilwoman Jill Gaebler said.
Councilwoman Helen Collins agreed.
"I won't support giving public money to a private project," she said.
In other business, the council discussed a proposed land exchange to acquire an acre of land near America the Beautiful Park to be used as part of the interchange project at Interstate 25 and Cimarron Street. The city would trade nearly 5.6 acres in two parcels currently used for parking.
Council members also expressed support of two issues on the ballot in the April 4 city election: asking voters to keep up to $6 million in excess revenue this year and next, and asking that the city be excluded from a state law limiting the city's ability to provide advanced telecommunications services to citizens.
Mayor John Suthers wants to use the excess revenue to fund stormwater projects. He said the city will refund any amount above the $6 million back to voters. The city's chief financial officer said the total excess could be as much as $8 million when final calculations and audits are complete.
The council will have its regular meeting at 1 p.m. Tuesday.