Hickenlooper’s Bond “Magic” Appears to be Working

Judging from the TV ads, it’s going to be don’t ask, don’t tell in the run up to the November ballot on eight bond issues and a tax increase in Denver. All we, the voters, will get is grinning Mayor John Hickenlooper standing in front of a bunch of oversized dancing red foam letters A to I.

Numbers? We don’t need no stinking numbers.

If Hizzoner says vote for A to I without telling Denver how much it will cost, we voters should do it – just like lemmings.

A few weeks ago, on the PBS television show Colorado Inside Out, I predicted that we wouldn’t.

Today, I’d say the odds are, the majority of us will.

No organized opposition has arisen to oppose the lock-step, numberless approach to marketing $550 million in bond debt and a $27 million property tax increase that will add $63 a year to the bill for a $255,000 home.

The only sticking point right now is that voters will have to mark their ballots nine times, not once. This might cause some confusion, but apparently no sense of outrage or manipulation.

“They’ve decided it makes sense to push it all together,” said Jeanne Faatz said, the Denver City Council’s most fiscally conservative member. “From a campaign standpoint, that was very smart.”

Smarter still was offering these spending increases in an off-year election where a small, but zealous minority usually drives the outcome.

Channel 4 TV reporter Raj Chohan, who hosts Colorado Inside Out, says Hickenlooper has “magical powers” when it comes to bond issues. I’d say the mayor’s magic is based more on savvy than sleight of hand.

Forget what the law says about separating these questions. Hickenlooper has proclaimed the tax and bond package a single entity called “Better Denver.” He has pooled the money of the various beneficiaries into a single massive treasure chest that will pay to fill the airwaves with the Mayor’s boyish visage and dancing foam letters from now until election day, Nov. 6.

“I got a call two nights ago from the Better Denver campaign,” said community activist Aimee Rathburn. “They told me if I voted for all nine things it would only cost me $5 a month. I think that’s misleading.”

It is. The five-bucks-a-month figure is based on an estimate that the tax increase will add $63 a year to the tax bill on a $255,000 home. But as Rathburn correctly points out, that $63 doesn’t pay the debt service on the $550 million in bonds.

“I called Better Denver and asked where the rest of the money was going to come from,” said Rathburn. “They told me it would come payments now being made on bonds that are about to be paid off.”

In fact, Rathburn argues, paying off one set of bonds without issuing a new set would result in a tax reduction for citizens. Better Denver doesn’t tell you that. Neither does the mayor. Both presume that the city’s bonded debt level should not be reduced. Both presume that you don’t care that it could be.

Incredibly, presumptuousness and half-truth seem likely to carry election day.

A measure of Hizzoner’s clout in this matter may be seen in comparison to his predecessor, Wellington Webb. Webb backed and lost attempts to raise taxes to pay for pre-schools and to sell bonds to build a new jail.

Hickenlooper eked out a pre-school tax victory and handily won approval for bonds to build an entire justice center.

Now, he appears on the verge of winning something that many pundits – present company included – thought was un-winnable.

What we’re really voting for Nov. 6 is this:

Issue 1A is a $27 million tax increase that will form a fund for annual capital maintenance.

The rest are bond issues.

1B is $48.6 million for health and human services.

1C is $51.9 million for libraries.

1D is $149.8 million for streets, transportation and public works.

1E is $93.4 million for parks and recreation centers.

1F is $10.3 million to refurbish city buildings.

1G is $60.5 million to refurbish cultural buildings.

1H is $70 million to expand cultural facilities.

1I is $65.2 million for public safety.

Here is the detailed breakdown.

Do those numbers matter? Do the details of the projects within those categories matter? Does the fact that you can vote for a single issue without voting for the others make any difference?

A while back, Denver Councilman Doug Linkhart told me that while opposition to some of individual projects might exist, it would not be organized enough to overcome a general sense of need and all the issues would pass.

Though she is encouraging voters to make distinctions, Faatz is beginning to believe that, too. The councilwoman chalks it up to Hickenlooper’s charm and his success as a private businessman before entering public office.

“People put faith in what he says,” she explained.

And they don’t ask for a lot of details.

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Jim Spencer

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