Odd-numbered years used to be something of an electoral respite. Sure, there were school board races; municipal contests here and there; and a small smattering of ballot issues around this tax matter or that.
But voters were most often spared the high-decibel campaigns for high office and the A to Z lineup of propositions and amendments, many of high stakes and fueled by various monied interests, that are a feature of general elections in even-numbered years.
However, there is no such break for Denver voters this fall. In addition to contentious races for the Denver School Board, Mile High City voters will decide 13 ballot questions, the most in at least two decades.
All voting households will soon receive the infamous Blue Book with a summary of each issue along with pro and con arguments. This column makes no claim to that kind of even-handed objectivity. But here goes a quick, high-level overview of these 13 ballot items.
Questions 2A to 2E comprise Mayor Hancock’s proposed bond package as referred to voters by City Council. The total of all five bonds would come to $450 million.
The overall question in these quarters is whether now is the time for such a pricey package given the volume of federal and state stimulus dollars already in circulation, and the number of families and small businesses still hurting and nowhere near pandemic recovery. Further, many people are asking how well this package was thought through; how much true citizen input went into its formulation; and how essential are a number of the projects.
To a couple of the specific bond proposals, 2B requests $38.6 million for housing and shelter projects. This comes just 12 months after voters gave their blessing to a quarter-cent sales tax increase for homeless shelters and services. It begs the question of whether money is truly the variable that will fix these ills.
Bond question 2E is the item that has garnered the most attention, seeking $190 million to construct a new arena at the National Western complex. That amount is over 42 percent of the total package. While a mayoral representative has managed to tone down my harsh critique, I continue to worry that this is a vanity project and doubt the need for a new, mid-sized arena. At a minimum, that need requires a lot more definition and detail than we have seen to date.
For the sake of comprehensiveness, 2A proposes $104 million for maintenance at some of Denver’s premier cultural facilities along with the construction of two new libraries. 2C is a $63.3 million transportation bond for items such as expanding sidewalks, renovating bike lands and building an urban trail downtown. 2D asks $54 million for various park projects focusing on northeast and south Denver.
Question 2F may be my closest call on the ballot. It seeks to overturn the new group living rules adopted by City Council earlier this year. A group called Safe and Sound Denver opposed those changes and is advocating this repeal. Clearly, housing patterns have changed and countless people are priced out of the single-family residential market. Yet, the Council-enacted measure is quite broad and comes with considerable risk, including the possibility of waking up with a halfway house next door. As I said, a tough issue and close call.
Measure 2G would shift the authority for appointing the independent police monitor from the mayor to the Citizen Oversight Board. This may not be the most consequential issue. But the mayor’s appointment powers have already been weakened and I question giving that responsibility to a volunteer group.
2H would change the date of this city’s general election from the first Tuesday of May to the first Tuesday of April. This allows more time between the general election and any runoff. Makes sense to me.
Proposed Ordinance 300 would increase Denver’s sales tax on marijuana to fund a university-business partnership for pandemic preparedness. It seems timely, for sure. But this is primarily about research and some may wonder whether this is really a local function and how much impact will be had for $7 million per year.
Ordinance 301 and 302 read rather similarly but are competing measures related to the whole controversy around the future of the Park Hill golf course property. Voters may be tempted to vote for both (or against both), but that is self-defeating. This is an either-or deal.
301 was petitioned on the ballot by Save Open Space Denver, a group of leading citizens, many living in the Park Hill area, to protect the conservation easement on this beautiful, valuable, enticing 155 acre parcel. 302 is the counter-measure sponsored by Westside Investment Partners, the developers who wish to turn this land into another multi-use project, albeit with some to-be-determined amount of open space maintained.
I wrote on this subject a half year ago, though long before the developer added their alternative measure to make the whole thing more convoluted and confusing. Perhaps deliberately so?
The sleeper issue on this roster could be Ordinance 303, which would ban camping on private property without written permission of the property owner and require city officials to enforce the camping ban within three days of a complaint. For a city that has long since grown weary of the spread of pop-up encampments here, there and everywhere, this measure might be a chance for voters to make clear their unmistakable intent a few years back in maintaining the camping ban by an 80 percent majority.
Finally, we come to Ordinance 304, another proposal from the head of the Denver Republican Party (as is 303). This one would reduce Denver’s sales tax from 4.81 percent to 4.5 percent, and permanently cap it there. While I have often thought that Denverites are far too quick, easy and non-discerning in passing tax hikes, that is their democratic privilege and prerogative. There is cause to be leery of artificial caps.
Exhausted yet? And the campaigns are just ramping up.
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. He writes regularly for ColoradoPolitics and the Denver Gazette. Reach him at [email protected]; follow him at @EricSondermann