City may ask voters to expand scope; campaign group wants polling done
by dennis darrow
Pueblo City Council will consider changes in the half-cent sales tax for job creation as part of an anticipated November ballot question to extend the tax, Council President Steve Nawrocki said this week.
In general, the changes would allow the city to use the fund in more ways, Nawrocki said. Council’s discussions will involve the entire community before a final proposal goes for a council vote and then onto the ballot, he said.
“We don’t what to go through what we went through last year,” Nawrocki said Thursday in briefing the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Economic Development about how the city will approach voters on another five-year extension.
Last year, several council members drew backlash from the community by pushing a proposal to use the fund for more general spending while rejecting a plan to tap the fund for a loan to begin the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk of Pueblo expansion. The loan repayment would come from $43 million in state aid pledged for the expansion.
The events contributed to the three council members' decision to eventually resign.
The events also temporarily derailed the work of the blue ribbon group, formed last year to discuss local economic development issues and also possible changes to the fund. The group, made up of representatives of the business community, chambers of commerce, the Pueblo Economic Development Corp. and local government, resumed its monthly meetings this year.
Nawrocki on Thursday told the group the current council will move cautiously in considering any changes.
"What's going to come from the city is a draft of a starting point to look at, so we can get input from all of our partners in putting together something that is going to be palpable for the community," Nawrocki said. The city's tentative timeline calls for discussions this summer and adoption of a ballot question by August, he said.
Nawrocki's comments followed cautionary remarks about the upcoming vote by Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce President Rod Slyhoff, who is heading the Puebloans for Jobs group expected to raise donations and campaign in support of extending the half-cent tax. Given last year's events, "we need to start doing some polling" on whether voters would support any of the changes, Slyhoff said.
"I don't know what the language is going to look like. It's my understanding city staff is looking at some language... We went through this whole (blue ribbon) process about how we want to reshape that question, and I think voters will support the question, but they don't trust us... They don't really trust us because we're not on the same page all of the time," Slyhoff told the group.
Nawrocki responded by offering a broad outline of the changes to be considered. One change would revive last year's proposal to broaden the eligibility guidelines to include city infrastructure improvements and other projects, he said.
Another would add language to specify the fund supports the full range of primary jobs "bringing wealth into our community" from the outside, and not just manufacturing jobs, he said. Other jobs that bring money into Pueblo include service sector jobs such as tourism and call centers, he said.
"We know economic development has changed. We want it to be broader, have a little bit more flexibility. We want to make sure our partner in economic development, PEDCO, has the resources. We want to make sure the other parts of the community have the resources to promote our community," he said.
There are additional factors council is weighing ahead of this year's election.
Voters will be asked to renew the tax during a period when new business recruitment has slowed significantly in the wake of the Great Recession and the money in the fund now exceeds $40 million.
Meanwhile, local voters' appetite for any tax question currently appears low. In November, city voters rejected by a 3-1 margin a measure to raise the sales tax for public safety. In 2013, local voters by more than a 2-1 margin joined with statewide voters in rejecting a tax increase for K-12 education.
As for city leaders, they want the half-cent tax to continue but they're split over the proposal to add more spending flexibility. In general, those pushing for the change say the $40 million reserve is sufficient for now and that, until the money is spent down, the fund's future tax collections should be available to possibly help fund other projects, including city infrastructure improvements.
Supporters of the current fund say they worry any proposed changes will not meet with voters' approval and will result in the end of the tax and the fund. Also, they say, the money currently in the fund will serve Pueblo well as the economy continues to recover and more outside companies show an interest in Pueblo and more existing companies seek to expand.
The current five-year run of Pueblo's half-cent sales tax won't expire until the end of 2016 but traditionally the city puts an extension question on the ballot a year in advance, partly as a precaution in the event voters reject a proposed change to how the fund is used. Historically, voters have rejected by a 2-1 margin attempts to change the fund while voting 2-1 in favor when the fund is left intact.