Denver City Council sends higher-education tax hike to voters

Denver City Council members agree higher education costs too much in Colorado and that state and federal lawmakers have failed to take care of it. What council members disagree on is whether the city should have a role in fixing the problem.

Tuesday night, the council passed a measure to send to voters that would raise taxes to create a city fund to pay for higher education. Voters will make the ultimate decision in November.

If the bill becomes law, the city’s sales tax would increase by .08 percent, and that extra revenue would go toward a new Denver College Affordability Fund. The fund would reimburse nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships or other support to Denver students as well as pay down the loans of graduates saddled with debt.

Supporters say the funding could make a huge difference for Denver students who face massive tuition costs and an economy increasingly unforgiving to adults without a post-secondary degree.

Denver Public Schools board member Happy Haynes sat on the taskforce that wrote the measure.

“There’s a problem. The cost of college is outpacing the ability of our residents’ to afford it. And the burden is much more severe today than in prior generations,” she said.

Barbara Grogan, founder and former CEO of Western Industrial Contractors, with an extensive resume in the public and private sector, said she “understands what it takes to grow a successful business. It takes a well trained, highly educated workforce.” Supporting increased access to higher education will yield “an enormous and direct return on investment” for the local economy.

On the first school night of the year, senior Ely Roldan told the council that her parents don’t have a college education and don’t earn enough to pay for hers. She’s determined to go to college so she can eventually become a pediatrician, but she worries about the loans she’ll take on to get there. “I’ll still be paying for college at age 60. Who wants that? Not me.”

President of Metropolitan State University Stephen Jordan thinks it’s a bad sign that financial pressure is driving students away from his school, which is already one of the most affordable in the country. He testified about a survey Metro State sent out to every student who dropped out last year. Of the 1,300 who responded, 33 percent reported leaving for financial — not academic — reasons.

The Council is split over who should pay and how.

“Being against this is like being against motherhood and apple pie,” council member Mary Beth Susman said before voting no. “Of course college tuition costs are out of sight, but we need to be responsible about our city’s financial needs.”

Resident Thad Tecza showed up to remind the council of other financial needs. “This winter several homeless people will freeze to death in alleys and under bridges,” he said. “That’s the responsibility of city government. But of course it wouldn’t be nearly as politically popular, so out of sight, out of mind.”

For many naysayers, the issue was simple: Funding education is just not the city’s responsibility.

“That this is the purview of state government is painfully clear,” said council member Paul Kashmann. And even though the legislature has done an “unacceptable” job, he said, asking city taxpayers to step in would be “inappropriate.”  

Rafael Espinoza called the measure “a great idea conceptually” but questioned why its supporters didn’t go the route of a citizens initiative.

“There’s a way to do this that doesn’t force us to program or prescribe,” he said. “You could’ve probably gotten the entire 18 year old population of DPS to put this on the ballot.”

The measure’s sponsor, City Council President Chris Herndon, gave some final, pragmatic words before the vote. “We’ll never get the perfect ordinance, but we do have something that will make a difference.” He acknowledged that higher education may well be the state’s responsibility, but urged the council not to let that detail bog them down. “If it affects our community, let’s do something about it,” he said in closing.

Kendra Black, Jolon Clark, Stacie Gilmore, Chris Herndon, Paul Kashmann, Paul Lopez, Wayne New and Debbie Ortega voted “aye,” while Rafael Espinoza, Kevin Flynn, Robin Kniech and Mary Beth Susman each cast a “nay.” Albus Brooks was absent, and Mayor Michael Hancock has expressed support for the measure.

The proposed sales-tax hike amounts to 8 cents on every $100 spent in the city, which is estimated to generate more than $10 million a year. Students age 25 or younger who have lived in the city for at least three years, demonstrate financial need, enroll in a Colorado school and keep up decent grades would qualify. Scholarship organizations would be reimbursed 75 percent of what they spend on each student, and there’s a $4,000 annual funding limit for each student.

The tax would expire in ten years.

Denver voters will weigh in on the issue November 3.


Photo by BankSimple, Creative Commons, via Flickr



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