Springs mayor candidates eye change

The Colorado Statesman

COLORADO SPRINGS — At least 11 mayoral candidates are vying to lead Colorado Springs out of the economic wilderness and into a new landscape of prosperity by growing jobs in existing businesses and attracting new companies to the city where unemployment hovers at 9.4 percent and foreclosures set a record of 5,470 in 2009 and 4,825 in 2010.

“We just got the award from Forbes magazine about being the community that’s the hardest to find jobs in the country,” said former Colorado Springs Councilman Richard Skorman during his mayoral campaign kickoff at Penrose Library.

Forbes ranked Colorado Springs at the bottom, tied with Akron, Ohio and Columbia, South Carolina, for projected job growth in the first quarter this year.

Business and ex-Colorado Springs Councilman Richard Skorman promises to be “the jobs mayor” at his campaign launch in the Penrose Library.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman
One of 10 candidates in the race for Colorado Springs mayor, Dave Munger discusses the tough economic issues facing the community during a wine-and-cheese fundraiser hosted by Bob and Sylvia Lovelace at their home in the Count Pourtales community adjacent to the Broadmoor.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman
State Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, endorses Springs mayoral candidate Buddy Gilmore.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman
Colorado Springs mayoral candidate Brian Bahr loads campaign signs with an assist from his political consultant Kyle Fisk.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman
Colorado Springs at-large council contender Brandy Williams and mayoral candidate Steve Bach exchange tales from the campaign trail at a Sept. 15 town hall meeting hosted by El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman

“I’m going to be the jobs mayor,” declared Skorman. He’s not the only candidate chanting the “jobs mayor” mantra particularly among the top tier candidates that include Brian Bahr, president of Challenger Homes; Steve Bach, commercial real estate broker; Gregory “Buddy” Gilmore, president of Shape Technologies; and Dave Munger, past president of Council of Neighbors and Organizations.

“My top priority is to implement a collaborative effort to help bring new jobs to the region,” said Gilmore.

All of the five candidates interviewed said that if elected mayor, they would work closely with The Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Springs Economic Development Corporation, business community and civic organizations to develop a strategy to help local businesses grow and attract new companies to the community and the Pikes Peak region.

Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera, who is term limited, was a citizens mayor compensated $6,000 a year. His successor will be a “strong mayor” and paid $96,000 annually. In November, more than 59 percent of 126,402 voters supported a ballot initiative to empower the mayor to act as the city’s CEO and to eliminate the position of city manager.

The last hotly contested race was in 2003, when Rivera spent roughly $90,000. This year, the price tag ranges from Bahr’s estimate of $400,000 to Gilmore’s hope of less than $100,000.

Mayoral candidates must gather 100 petition signatures by Wednesday, Feb. 9, to qualify for the mail-in ballot election on April 5. Considering the long-shot odds of one contender capturing more than 50 percent of the vote, the winner will likely be determined in a runoff election on May 17 between the top two candidates.

Revamping the city’s image may be the first challenge.

The city’s national reputation, Skorman said, “is turning off street lights, not maintaining our parks, culture wars (and) foreclosures… It’s not sexy to talk about potholes. It’s not sexy to talk about sprinkler systems.”

“The mayor has to be a positive statesman and then, we need branding,” said Bach. “Part of branding is the business climate and how we feel about ourselves as a community.”

Bach said he would promote Colorado Springs as the home of the United States Olympic Committee and the amateur sports capitol of the country — an idea also pushed by Gilmore, Skorman and others.

After voters in the Colorado Springs and El Paso County rejected tax increase measures in 2008 and 2009, the city balanced its budget by uprooting street lights, cutting bus service, scaling back road repairs and snow removal, and refusing to water grass and removing trash cans in parks. The shortfall-revenue remedies received national TV and press coverage.

It’s not the first time that Colorado Springs has battled media bashing. It was hammered as the “hate city” in 1992 because a group of social conservative citizens spearheaded the effort to deny gay rights under Amendment 2 that was later declared unconstitutional. Another municipal moniker is the “Christian Capitol” because of the religious organizations, none bigger than Focus on the Family, enticed to the community after the economic recession in the late 1980s.

Looking for revenue without raising taxes

The city is also the birthplace of the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR), authored by former state Rep. Douglas Bruce, R-Colorado Springs. The city’s version of TABOR, which requires voter approval of any new tax, is more restrictive than the state constitution amendment passed by voters in 1992. Opponents argue that TABOR has the lethal potential to bankrupt local and state governments; advocates continue to fight attempts to alter or ask voters to repeal the measure.

Colorado Springs mayoral candidates have been asked to sign the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” crafted by Jeff Crank of Americans for Prosperity, a group that endorses TABOR. “I pledge to the taxpayers of Colorado Springs that I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes,” states the pledge.

Of the five candidates interviewed, Munger and Skorman have not signed the pledge. Skorman said that he would support asking voters for a tax or property mill levy increase to offset the loss of funding for services, including parks and libraries. As director of the Trails Open Space and Parks (TOPS) initiative, Skorman persuaded Colorado Springs voters to pass a penny tax increase to fund the purchase of open space in 1997, and its renewal in 2003.

“I think we should get rid of the business personal property tax,” said Skorman of the city levy that is charged in addition to the state tax.

“I think we should also increase the vendors’ fee from 1 percent to 3 percent,” he said.

The vendors’ fee is compensation to businesses for collecting sales tax for the city. Businesses currently receive 1 percent of the tax monies, said Skorman, but that does not adequately cover the costs of collecting the tax — and the additional fees charged for consumers using credit cards.

Munger said, “A tax increase, with the current economic climate, will not be possible or warranted within the next few years.”

The city enjoyed higher sales tax revenues in 2010, partially due to medical marijuana distributors, and proposed restoring some of the street lights and park services in the $223,900,000 budget this year. The city’s budget may be amended later this year to offset at least a $2 million loss in property taxes because of an anticipated 10-15 percent reduction in property valuations.

“The $2 million figure is a reality, but the city has it covered,” said Munger, based on his conversation Monday morning with Interim City Manager Steven W. Cox.

“There’s a hit coming and it could be as high as $3 million,” said Gilmore. “I expect a downturn in 2012 based on lower property valuations and we need to prepare for it.”

Gilmore, Bach and Bahr signed the pledge, but the candidates said fee increases for services should be evaluated.

“I will not support raising taxes. I don’t know about fees. I need to get in there and understand what fees we have and whether or not they’re reasonable and whether or not they’re too high or too low,” said Bach

He later clarified that the “goal is to reduce the overall cost of government. Regarding fees, once I’m in office, I’ll review with staff all fees currently being charged and look for ways to reduce them.”

Gilmore said that he would work with departments to evaluate the costs of services.

“There may be situations where higher fees are necessary. An example might be an increase in public golf course fees (to offset) higher water rates,” he said.

Bahr said that he would like to review the costs of services. He said the city’s charge to review plans for an average-size building is roughly $3,000 — the same cost to have the plans created from scratch.

“I think we need to put service back into public service,” said Bahr.

Trust in government is a goal

Bahr said the new mayor needs to have “business experience and high moral character to make principle-based decisions but also set a vision that people can follow.”

“I think that voters have a lack of trust in our city leadership,” he clarified. “No one questions that we needed to keep the USOC (United States Olympic Committee) here… and yet the way that deal was struck with a lack of transparency and without communication to the voters and the roundabout way to finance it just doesn’t pass the smell test.”

In 2009, the city’s ethics commission cleared Rivera of allegations that he had a conflict of interest in negotiating the $53 million deal with developer Ray Marshall, who headed LandCo Equity Partners that owned the building purchased and remodeled for the USOC headquarters. Rivera had served as an investment broker to Marshall, who was later investigated on 33 criminal counts of allegedly defrauding investors in other partnerships.

Even the three members of the ethics panel were perceived to have of a conflict of interest — attorney Stephen Hook had worked under City Attorney Pat Kelly, Jan Doran had campaigned for Rivera’s re-election and Mal Wakin, an Air Force Academy professor had served on the USOC’s ethics commission.

“It’s important to me that voters know that I’m not a politician. I’m not an insider,” said Bahr.

Like Bahr, most candidates agreed that the mayor will need to lead the way in restoring trust in government. One way is making government more transparent.

“I think there’s a lack of trust,” said Munger. “It’s a sentiment shared by voters across the country — not just in Colorado Springs.”

As for transparency, Munger told supporters at a fundraiser in the Broadmoor community last Sunday that he does not believe that city employee salaries should be make public. He specifically chastised the Colorado Springs Gazette for having published high-ranking employee salaries, particularly executives who work for the city-owned Memorial Hospital. Munger said the practice would detract high-caliber candidates from seeking jobs at the city.

Bahr would like to increase transparency in several ways — making information accessible and understandable.

“I have a Masters degree in accounting and the city’s budget is difficult to decipher for even me,” he said. “I believe part of the problem is the difficulty in getting access to the information and part of it is the way the information is presented.”

Consolidating services is also a priority

“One of my top priorities is to create an efficient and effective government,” said Gilmore. “I plan to work with department heads, the city council and citizens to develop a set of metrics for each city department so we can measure the effectiveness of city services.”

“It’s easier to get plans for a new building or plant in Denver than here,” said Gilmore, who would like to eliminate duplicated services performed separately by city and county departments.

Ideas on the table include aspects of public safety, the city and county individual television stations and broadcasting teams and city and county elections departments. Opening services to private and public bids is also on the table.

Gilmore would also like to cut bureaucratic red tape.

“You have to fill out a 24-page application to run a bicycle race in Colorado Springs — it’s a one-page application in Woodland Park,” said Gilmore. “To hold a neighborhood block party, you have to talk with city police chief to get permission. It’s an oxymoron to call Colorado Springs the ‘freedom city,’”

“We need an expedited top to bottom review of everything we’re doing in the city to determine if we’re doing everything that we can at the least cost. Are there other ways of doing things, such as sharing costs and services with other government entities?” asked Bach.

“We need to unleash our employees’ creativity to come up with innovative solutions,” said Bach. An example, he applauded, is the new concept of eliminating more than half of 1,200 printers to shared printers at work stations to save $500,000 a year.

The mayoral candidates also include Mitch Christiansen, Kenneth Paul Duncan, Phil McDonald, Kelly Pero-Luckhurst, Colorado Springs City Councilman Tom Gallagher and Marvin Venson Jr. who joined the fray last week.

Steven Bach

Bach, one of four children raised on a farm in Olathe, Kansas, attended Claremont Men’s College in California, but was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1964. Instead of being sent to Vietnam, he was diverted from artillery training to work as a clerical typist for a company commander and stationed at Fort Carson.

“I took a typing class in junior high school because there was this young girl that I was hoping would notice my existence in the class. But, of course, she never noticed my existence,” said Bach with a chuckle.

After serving his two-year stint in the Army, Bach said he was fortunate to use the G.I. Bill to attend University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and graduated magna cum laude in 1968. Finding a job in the community was tougher — and that memory has spurred Bach’s quest to be a mayor who creates a pro-business environment that assists existing employers and attracts new companies to the community.

Bach said he landed a job with Proctor & Gamble in Cleveland, but two years later returned to Colorado Springs to become marketing director for Current, a greeting card and mail order company in Colorado Springs owned by the Loo family and sold in 1986 to American Can for $114 million.

In 1984, Bach became a commercial real estate broker — a career choice encouraged by developer and businessman Steve Schuck.

At the end of December, Bach’s campaign reported $57,250 in the coffer, including a $24,000 loan by the candidate. Laura Carno, who managed state Sen. Steve King’s campaign last year, was named Bach’s campaign chief of staff.

Supporters include former state Sen. Andy McElhany, former City Manager Lorne Kramer, Gary Loo, Katherine Loo, and developers Ralph Braden, Bruce Shepard and C. Lewis Christensen.

Brian Bahr

A graduate of Brigham Young University, Bahr moved to Colorado Springs in 1995 and was a comptroller for a commercial real estate brokerage firm. Three years later, he became a homebuilder and established Challenger Homes.

“When things get tough, instead of thinking oh man, life stinks, you have to start thinking creatively to succeed,” said Bahr.

After the financial markets crashed in October 2008, the real estate market was hit and new homes sat vacant. Bahr initiated a “trade up” marketing plan at Challenger Homes to assist people in selling their existing home while their new home was being built. The “trade up” contract locks in a guaranteed price that Challenger Homes will pay if the old home doesn’t sell.

About 18 months ago, Bahr said he contemplated running for mayor — and filed his candidacy papers, he noted, before the initiative for a strong mayor form of government.

“I was concerned about the problems that we face, but no creativity in solving them, and seeing that our city has been going downhill over the last few years. And I have five children and want them to be able to come back here after they’ve gone to college and married. I want them to be able to stay here and find jobs,” said Bahr.

At the end of December, Bahr’s campaign reported having raised $127,120, including a $100,000 loan from the candidate. The candidate has $82,267 cash on hand and has invested in radio ads since August. His campaign is steered by Kyle Fisk of Bullhorn Communications.

Supporters include Dennis Obenauf, president of Stonegate Homes; David Rice, president of New Star Homes; Gary Erickson, a developer; and Owen Hill, who ran unsuccessfully against Senate Majority Leader John Morse last year.

Buddy Gilmore

Gilmore, who was raised in Chattanooga, joined the U.S. Air Force in 1972 and was stationed at Shriever Air Force Base in 1987. It was like a dream come true, he said, recalling his reaction to a previous visit to Colorado Springs in 1984.

“Man! I don’t know what heaven looks like but this has got to be pretty close!” Gilmore said of his first vision on the community nestled against the backdrop of Pikes Peak.

After retiring from the Air Force in 1992, he worked several years as an engineer and formed his own company, Shape Technologies, LLC, in 2000.

Gilmore said his top priorities are jobs, efficiency in government and building a sense of community.

“I want to get us out this enclave environment,” said Gilmore, who wants to end the concept of separate communities within the city. He envisions uniting neighborhoods, such as Briargate, Broadmoor, Rockrimmon and Stetson Hills, to work together for a better city.

Added to that, the candidate believes it’s imperative to work with surrounding communities in the region, state legislators and Governor John Hickenlooper. He voiced concerns about the impact of legislation and programs such as PERA because the city workforce is invested in the public employee retirement program.

At the end of December, Gilmore’s campaign reported having raised about $110,250, including a $100,000 loan from the candidate. His campaign manager is Kay Rendleman, the former El Paso County GOP chair who was briefly manager of Ken Buck’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign last year.

Supporters include House Majority Leader Amy Stephens of Colorado Springs, state Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton and former state Sen. Ed Jones.

Dave Munger

“I first came here in 1960 for a Boy Scout Jamboree. I was 14 years old,” recalled Munger. “I went home to North Dakota and told my parents that I wanted to live in Colorado Springs.”

The wish came true in 2004 when Munger convinced his wife Kimberly to move. Their son Chris graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and daughter, Kimberly Schultz, went to Duke University.

“My top three priorities are restoring trust in government, creating jobs and advancing community,” said Munger, who said the latter means more community involvement in city decisions.

“Right now, I don’t see the city council evaluating a strategy plan that matches what citizens expect. We need citizen input,” he said.

Munger, who has a track record of civic involvement, said he is currently studying the city departments, talking with employees and council members and studying other cities to learn new ideas.

At the end of December, Munger’s campaign reported having raised $19,485, including a $1,000 contribution from the candidate. His campaign manager is Jaimie Saratella.

Munger’s supporters include former Colorado Springs Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, Colorado College President Dick Celeste, builder Chuck Murphy and former City Councilor Judy Noyes.

Richard Skorman

A graduate of Colorado College in 1975, Skorman stayed in Colorado Springs and opened Poor Richard’s Restaurant, Richard’s Book Store, Little Richard’s Toy Store and a small movie theater. Skorman replaced the theater with Rico’s Wine and Coffee Bar.

His wife, Patricia Seator, said the only drawback to her husband winning the mayoral race is that she will have to single handedly run the retail complex because the amended city charter does not allow the mayor to have another job or operate a business.

“I used to joke with John Hickenlooper that restaurant owners make the best politicians,” said Skorman. He added that Colorado Springs might cull a few tips from the former Denver Mayor.

Skorman won election to an at-large city council seat in 1999 and 2003, and resigned in 2006 to become former U.S. Senator Ken Salazar’s regional office director.

The candidate plans to unveil a 10-point plan, “Opportunity Colorado Springs,” based on his talks with business owners, community leaders, and members of The Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and Colorado Springs Economic Development Corporation.

“I love this city!” exclaimed Skorman. “I love the mix, the people. We have a community full of different cultures and religions, people with different points of view. We have great ethnic restaurants. And let’s celebrate it.”

At the end of December, Skorman’s campaign raised $26,018, including a $5,000 loan from the candidate. His campaign manager is Kyle Blakely, who established the public relations firm Blakely & Associates.

Skorman’s supporters include former Colorado Insurance Commissioner and state Rep. Marcy Morrison, commercial real estate broker Doug Carter, former City Planner Ira Joseph, State Transportation Commission Chair Les Gruen, businessman and engineer Sol Chavez, Judy Sellers, Katherine J. Tudor and Nancy Saltzman.

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com