Denver’s need is not in question. Everything else is.
City leaders are prepared to let November voters decide on a $40 million-a-year-sales tax to combat homelessness.
They've tried and failed at just about everything for a couple of decades, so why not give money another shot in a town bankrupt for sustainable ideas?
The proposal led by City Councilwoman At Large Robin Kniech is propelled by nothing but good intentions, the kind that has always paved the way in this ongoing quagmire — too little, too late, too vague.
Except the story doesn't end there.
The capital city also plans to ask for an additional 0.25% sales tax — think of it as $100 on a $40,000 new car — to do more on climate change.
Joey Bunch: "There are two kinds of shoes on Denver’s 16th Street Mall. I’ve walked in both."
Denver already levies 5.41%, on top of a 2.9% state sales tax. The 8.31% total is on par with the rest of the state, give or take. Grand Junction collects 8.52% and Colorado Springs takes 8.25%.
All this taxing and spending lands, however, at an awkward time, when the city's businesses and the people they employ are struggling to their feet. These tax increases feel like good deeds at a bad time.
My friend Chris Brown, the research chief over at the Common Sense Institute, talks a lot about the relationship between prosperity and costs, most often taxes and regulations. He wrote a must-read paper on the balance in relation to homelessness last year, when Denver was considering a repeal of its urban camping ban.
The city already spends about $26,000 per person experiencing homelessness every year, he said. The new sales would add another $10,000 a year. I spent about $16,000 on my mortgage, taxes and insurance last year.
"For context the total expenditure per student at Denver Public Schools was just under $17,500," he said. "The lack of affordability of housing is an absolutely critical issue, made more acute during the current crisis. However, until cities across the metro can find ways to adequately increase the supply of housing, the costs of increasing government transfers to subsidize housing costs for some will only continue to increase."
Two years ago, San Francisco passed Proposition C to tax businesses to pay for homeless relief. It passed with 61%, close enough to the two-thirds majority for litigation. The windfall has been tied up in court ever since, yet to put a pillow under anyone's head.
Right now, Denver doesn't know when or if office workers will return en masse to downtown, filling up restaurants, paying the sky-high fares for public parking or staffing the businesses that sustain the city center's vibrance.
I’ve been around Colorado tax dreams long enough to know there are some boxes you have to check to get traction at the local level. At the statewide level, the answer is consistently no.
Here’s the biggest checkoff: Reassure those who are reluctant to pony up more money unless they’re sure what they’ve already given was used wisely before asking for more.
That’s say-so from Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, a senior conservative statesman and former attorney general who has passed two local taxes to pay for transportation and drainage.
He tells voters what they’ll get for their money, delivers the projects on budget and on time, then the tax expires when it’s done its job. That’s how they do it in the Olympic City.
It's not like Denverites haven't been promised a solution before.
When John Hickenlooper went from brew pub owner to mayor in 2003 — long before he became a U.S. Senate nominee — he championed solving homelessness, almost immediately. Four years later he laid out an ambitious plan to solve homelessness, Denver's Road Home. In 2010 he became governor.
A city audit last year assessed, verbatim:
- Road Home lacks a strategic plan to address homelessness and has no communitywide performance metrics.
- Road Home’s collaboration with its partners is fragmented.
- There is uncertainty over who is ultimately responsible for leading strategic planning and policy within the city on homelessness.
The city says the Road Home budget has tripled over the last seven years to about $50 million a year into direct and indirect aid. Questions about homelessness, nonetheless, dogged Mayor Michael Hancock in his reelection campaign last year.
Money and politics have had their turns, as we dance around the issue of human rights and the byproduct of poverty.
Joe Salazar, a civil rights attorney by trade, championed the issue as a state representative before he narrowly lost the nomination for attorney general in 2018. Joe tried repeatedly to overturn Denver’s urban camping ban, calling it a human right to rest, even if you're poor.
“Money is not enough,” he told me in a Thursday night text about Denver’s latest proposal. The ban has to go, and people have to see each other for who they are, fellow humans trying to get by, he said.
Joe said Gov. Jared Polis needs to send a clear statement on the issue, including putting a state moratorium on evictions to keep people off the street in the first place.
“They have to stop criminalizing the homeless," he said. "The problem will only get worse with so many people unemployed and Polis refusing to place a moratorium on evictions."