Denver voters will see a pretty scant ballot this off-year election with a few really big ticket questions. Most of the ballot consists of seven questions that collectively make up the 2017 general obligation bonds, which are being marketed as the Our Denver bonds.
The city’s 2007 bond program, nearly complete, was known as the Better Denver bond program. Denver undertakes a major borrowing cycle roughly once a decade. This is an opportunity to put a lot of money into infrastructure investments, more than the city could afford to do just by paying with each year’s revenue.
This one is a lot of money, $937 million, including $50 million in contingency. The city says it can borrow that much without raising taxes because property values have gone up so much. So most Denver homeowners will be paying more than they did a few years ago — but they won’t be paying at a higher rate than on previous city debt.
Here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision.
Why are there seven ballot questions for one bond program?
The questions are divided up by focus area:
- Question 2A: Transportation and Mobility, $431 million
- Question 2B: Denver Cultural Facilities, $116.9 million
- Question 2C: Denver Health and Hospital Authority, $75 million
- Question 2D: Denver Public Safety System, $77 million
- Question 2E: Denver Library System, $69.3 million
- Question 2F: Denver Parks and Rec, $151.6 million
- Question 2G: Denver Public Facilities, $16.5 million
You can vote for vote for or against any of the questions. They’re being marketed as a package, but you don’t have to vote for them as a package. So, for example, if you want to see investment in transportation infrastructure but you don’t think taxpayers should be helping out the zoo and the art museum, you can vote yes on 2A and no on 2B. Or vice versa.
How can the city pay for this without raising taxes? Will they really not increase my taxes?
Denver is retiring debt from previous bond programs, which frees up space to pay off new debt without dramatically changing the budget picture, much like paying off one car loan might allow you to take on a new car loan. Denver is also relying on rising property values to support this bond. Because property in Denver is worth more than it used to be, the city can collect more money even though it is charging the same tax rate for debt service, 8.433 mills or $8.43 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Due to the Gallagher Amendment, which limits the portion of the tax burden borne by residential property owners, we only pay taxes on a small portion of assessed value. That number also changes from year to year. The median single-family home in Denver was assessed at $360,000 in 2017, with $219 out of the total tax bill going toward debt service. In 2007, when voters approved the Better Denver bonds, the median assessed value was $216,000, and the owner paid $145 toward debt service. What that amount is in the future will depend on what happens to assessed values.
Denver has promised it won’t have to raise taxes even if the economy slows down. The financial analysis behind the bond program was fairly conservative and works even if property values increase just 2 percent every other year. However, as 9News noted in this fact check, if the economy really tanked and property values declined, it’s possible Denver might have to raise taxes to meet its obligations.
If some or all of the bonds fail, the portion of the tax rate dedicated to debt service would go down over time as old debt is retired.
Who is for the bond package?
Most of the more than $2 million that supporters have raised to help pass the bond package comes from construction interests and major cultural institutions that stand to benefit from the bond. That’s instructive, but it doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who support it. The Denver Zoo and large contractors have more disposable income than the Westwood Unidos neighborhood association, for example.
During the bond process, neighborhood groups, including from parts of the city that traditionally have not seen a lot of public investments, advocated heavily for projects they wanted, and the project list reflects that, with a new recreation center and major improvements to Morrison Road in Westwood and more than $60 million in projects in Globeville, Elyria and Swansea, neighborhoods that are being buffeted by major change with the expansion of I-70 and the renovation of the National Western Center. Lots of neighborhood groups support this bond program.
Bike, pedestrian and transit advocates are also backing the bond package, even though there was plenty of wrangling over the last year about which projects would make the cut and which modes of travel would get priority. The bond package includes money for sidewalks, bike routes and the start of bus-rapid transit on Colfax, along with intersection upgrades, road maintenance and bridge replacements.
Who is against the bond package?
There is no organized opposition. Some people are disappointed that the bond package doesn’t include any spending on housing needs. Some people will vote no because the project list doesn’t reflect their priorities, and others will vote no because they are concerned about the city taking on that much debt. (The city has an excellent credit rating, and this bond package wouldn’t change that. Nonetheless, debt capacity used here is not available for something else that may come up in the future.)
What happens if there isn’t enough money for all the projects?
The city tried to build in enough contingency that this won’t happen. Planners were conservative with cost estimates to allow for flexibility if prices increase later, and there’s contingency within each project and within the overall bond program. If costs do escalate so much that the bond money doesn’t cover all the listed projects, projects could be reduced in scope or the city could look for other funding, either from the annual capital improvement budget or from outside sources.
What are the projects?
“Equity” was a big theme of this year’s bond package. More so than past bond programs, this one delivered, with more projects in west Denver and northeast Denver.
Question 2A: Transportation and Mobility, $431 million
The transportation package makes up roughly half the total bond package. That’s what Hancock wanted to see, as he’s made mobility a major focus of this term. The package is divided roughly in half between ongoing maintenance and new investment and is distributed between vehicle-oriented projects and ones that support transit, cycling and walking.
There was a lot of wrangling over the final project list. Which modes reign supreme in Denver’s vision for the transportation future? Here’s a breakdown of how biking, walking, pedestrian and vehicular interests fared in the transportation bond proposal.
And here’s a more detailed look at some of the individual projects:
Will Globeville residents get what they need out of Washington Street’s $23 million makeover?
The reconstruction of Washington Street from 47th to 52nd is one of a set of projects intended to benefit residents of the Globeville, Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods in northeast Denver.
“You have parents walking up and down Washington Street with a stroller and a bunch of kids, and there is no sidewalk, and it is so unsafe,” said Kristin Cardenas, member of a steering committee for the project.
For years, kids have walked between train cars at 47th and York. This GO Bond project would change that
Rail lines cut through Elyria-Swansea with an at-grade crossing at 47th Avenue and York Street. Sometimes trains stop for extended periods of time, severing Elyria from Swansea and blocking children from getting to school at Swansea Elementary School. Sometimes kids miss the free breakfast provided at Denver Public Schools, and sometimes they miss the start of the school day. And sometimes, children clamber between the stopped train cars because they get tired of waiting.
The GO bond sets aside $9.4 million for a pedestrian bridge over the rails.
Walking down Denver’s Colfax Avenue could be dramatically different by 2021
Colfax Avenue was built for the golden age of cars. This bond package includes $20 million for improvements that should make the corridor much safer for pedestrians.
“We’ve got one of the most dangerous corridors, in terms of pedestrians, in the city,” said Frank Locantore, director of the Colfax Avenue Business Improvement District. “… It’s crumbling. The sidewalks are falling apart. There’s missing trees. All of the things that make a good, pleasant streetscape are lacking.”
Other projects include:
- $30.7 million for sidewalk construction around the city;
- $7 million for bike, pedestrian and accessibility improvements to the Alameda underpass just east of Santa Fe (the drainage issues that create the infamous “Alameda Falls” are the responsibility of the railroad, not the city, officials said);
- $7 million for improvements on the Auraria campus to make it easier for cyclists and pedestrians to get around;
- $8.4 million for improvements to the intersection of Colorado and Buchtel boulevards;
- $5 million for multimodal improvements along Hamden;
- $8.6 million for reconstruction of the Eighth Avenue bridge over the Platte River;
- $13 million for implementation of the 16th Street Mall Plan;
- $3.7 million for High Line Canal connections;
- $12.2 million for Morrison Road improvements;
- $850,000 for a Central Street Promenade in Highland;
- $2.85 million for pedestrian improvements on Federal Boulevard;
- $1.9 million will go toward West Colfax transit enhancements;
- $12 million for multimodal improvements along Broadway, from Colfax to I-25;
- and $17 million for pedestrian improvements in Globeville, Elyria and Swansea.
Question 2B: Denver Cultural Facilities, $116.9 million
The taxpayer money for these projects will supplement private fundraising that each of these institutions is doing. Most of these facilities are owned by the city, and the institutions themselves already receive some taxpayer support for operations through the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.
- $35.5 million for renovation of the Denver Art Museum’s north building;
- $18 million for a Center for Science, Art and Education at the Denver Botanic Gardens;
- $20 million for phase I master plan implementation at the Denver Zoo, including a new animal hospital;
- and $6.8 million for improvements at Red Rocks and the Buell Theatre.
Question 2C: Denver Health and Hospital Authority, $75 million
Denver Health is a public hospital and an extension of the city and county that provides health care to the city’s poorest residents and doesn’t get reimbursed at rates that cover its costs. This money would go toward a new outpatient facility housing many of Denver Health’s speciality clinics. Building a new facility allows Denver Health to avoid expensive maintenance and upgrades on existing buildings, and the hospital hopes it will help attract more patients with private insurance to balance its Medicaid patient load, along with allowing for more efficient delivery of care. The new facility also will allow Denver Health to provide more “telehealth” distance services.
There was a lot of discussion during the bond process about whether to fund this at a lower level to free up more money for other projects. Hospital officials held their ground successfully and argued that the ambulatory care center was so essential to improving the quality of care that they would cannibalize other programs to fund it if the city didn’t provide the full $75 million they asked for. That’s about half of the total project cost, and the hospital is doing private fundraising. However, the hospital has been told it can’t take on new debt because it provides so much uncompensated care.
Question 2D: Denver Public Safety System, $77 million
This question would fund improvements at the county jail and police and fire facilities around the city, along with the full replacement of two police stations and a new fire station for northeast Denver.
- $25 million to replace the District 6 police building, 1566 Washington St.;
- $17.3 million to replace the District 5 police building, 4685 Peoria St.;
- and $16.2 million for a new fire station at 72nd Avenue and Tower Road.
Issue 2E: Denver Library System, $69.3 million
This money will pay for renovations at roughly half the city’s libraries, including part of a major renovation at the main downtown branch. Between this program and the 2007 bond program, every Denver library branch will have had some work done.
Denver’s library leaders aren’t planning any permanent new library facilities at the moment. Instead, they intend to improve what the city already has. Most of the money is going toward an extensive renovation of the Central Library branch, where staff are struggling to maintain an aging facility and accommodate waves of new visitors.
Issue 2F: Denver Parks and Rec, $151.6 million
Mile-long RiNo river promenade suddenly more likely again with $5 million from the bonds plan
The “River North Promenade” as currently conceived would stretch about a mile along the South Platte River, partially replacing Arkins Court between 29th Street and Globeville Landing Park along the river.
Westwood’s fight for a recreation center might finally pay off this year
Residents of this low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhood have been fighting for a rec center for more than a decade. The project gets $37.5 million in the bond package.
Renderings of the $9 million plan for Denver’s Paco Sanchez Park show “adventurous” new features
Starting this spring, the city of Denver began filling a quiet corner of Paco Sanchez Park with unusual playground equipment, resurrecting a long-debated plan that once was intended for City Park. The bond program contains $6.5 million for phases II and III.
Other projects include:
- $15.6 million for an indoor pool in Green Valley Ranch;
- $15 million for an indoor pool at Swansea Recreation Center;
- $8.3 million for the reconstruction of Congress Park pool;
- $15 million for neighborhood park improvements around the city;
- $2.5 million for improvements to Skyline Park and acquisition of additional downtown park space;
- $2 million for improvements to Harvey Park Recreation Center;
- $2 million for a playground at Inspiration Point Park in northwest Denver;
- and $4 million for improvements to the Greek Amphitheater in Civic Center Park.
Issue 2G: Denver Public Facilities, $16.5 million
This money doesn’t go toward any exciting new buildings or parks, but this is important stuff. Most of the money would go toward compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, improving accessibility in city buildings in accordance with a settlement with the Department of Justice. The rest would go toward deferred maintenance on public buildings.
Got other questions about the 2017 Our Denver bonds? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll try to answer them.