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September 14, 20175min207
The U.S. secretary of education toured the Air Force Academy campus, chatted with cadets over lunch and even hopped into the cockpit of a T-53 aircraft training simulator during a visit to the school on Wednesday. But if Betsy DeVos shared any ideas about her vision for America’s education system, it wasn’t apparent. The academy […]

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September 12, 20171min210

Manitou Springs might enact a policy to keep residents’ trash cans upright and local bears out of them, forcing the bruins to munch instead on nuts, berries and other natural fare. The City Council asked the staff at a Sept. 5 meeting to draft a “Bear Smart” ordinance that likely would require residents to keep their trash indoors until collection day or store it in a wildlife-proof bin.

Proponents say the measure would protect residents from scavenging wildlife, prevent bears from becoming too familiar with urban areas and save more of the animals from being euthanized because they are habituated to humans.

“We want to keep bears and people safe,” said Nancy Wilson, an organizer with the grassroots Bear Smart Task Force, which proposed the policy. “Most people are responsible in securing their trash, but some people don’t realize how important it is.”

Read more at The Gazette


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September 10, 20177min3240

Even with two local ballot measures setting aside at least $16 million for widening Interstate 25 between Monument to Castle Rock, officials are nowhere near being able to foot the bill for the project.

No other counties or municipalities have offered to help pay to expand the roughly 17-mile stretch from two to three lanes in each direction, and state transportation officials are far from finalizing a funding plan for the project.

To make it a more competitive candidate for federal grants, the Colorado Department of Transportation is proposing adding one toll lane in each direction on the stretch of interstate known as the “Gap.”

But with CDOT’s annual budget shortfall of about $1 billion and infrastructure improvements needed statewide, the project still has plenty of rivals.

Construction could begin in 2019 if local and state leaders can come up with the $290 million to $570 million needed for the undertaking, according to CDOT.

“A lot has to happen, though, between now and then on the finance and the funding side,” CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford said.

Proponents of the measures, which will be on the November ballots of El Paso County residents and those within the boundaries of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, say local commitments make the project a more appealing candidate for federal and state transportation dollars.

County Commissioner Mark Waller, vice chairman of the transportation authority’s board of directors, believes voter approval could be a turning point that encourages other governments in the region to chip in. But the failure of the measures could be a major blow to the project, which he believes won’t get done any time soon without local pledges.

“If these ballot initiatives don’t pass, I think it becomes incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to generate the local revenue to make it happen,” he said.

If voters say ‘yes’ to both questions, $10 million in sales tax revenues collected by the transportation authority will be reserved for the widening, and at least $6 million in excess county revenues will be retained to spend on the project. The $10 million from the transportation authority will be spent on the roughly 2-mile stretch of the Gap in El Paso County if other funding sources are identified. The county funds would be reallocated elsewhere if the Federal Highway Administration did not authorize construction by the end of 2027.

Waller said he hopes his fellow commissioners will allocate about $9 million more for the project in the next two budget years. Some have argued that El Paso County shouldn’t have to cover the cost of a project that lies mostly outside the county, but Waller said county residents will be the main beneficiaries.

El Paso County’s neighbor to the north has no plans to help pay construction costs, said Douglas County Commissioner Roger Partridge. Douglas County provided about $250,000 for a preliminary study needed for the widening and has spent about $8 million on improvements to ease traffic and increase safety on I-25 in the Castle Rock area, Partridge said. In June, he and his fellow commissioners voted 2-1 against putting a measure on a ballot that would ask voters’ permission to use sales tax revenue to pay for road and bridge improvements, including the widening, The Denver Post reported.

Local funding has been integral to the expansion of a roughly 14-mile stretch of I-25 from Johnstown to Fort Collins, which is slated for construction in 2018. Governments within the region provided about $25 million of the $237 million project. The rest was funded by a $15 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant, $30 million from the federal government and $167 million from the state.

CDOT Program Engineer Carrie DeJiacomo was encouraged to hear about the ballot measures.

“Any amount right now that we can get to get this project built is critical,” DeJiacomo said. “With today’s funding shortfall, a local match actually helps to leverage a project.”

This year, CDOT plans to apply for two federal grants for the widening with a proposal that includes the added toll lanes, which would be similar to the express lanes on U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder, DeJiacomo said.

But transportation officials are unsure how the project will stack up against other applicants vying for allocations and how much money could come from the grants, administered by the DOT’s Infrastructure for Rebuilding America and Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery programs, she said.

Another option might be a new state law that policymakers expect will generate about $1.8 billion for transportation needs over the next 20 years. The law requires that 25 percent of the funding go to rural transportation projects and another 10 percent to transit, leaving about $1.2 billion for thoroughfares like I-25.

CDOT staff is working on criteria to help the agency’s transportation commission choose which projects are awarded how much.

Transportation Commissioner Rocky Scott, whose district includes El Paso County, is optimistic the expansion of the I-25 Gap will make the list.

“Every member of the commission understands how important it is to get that job done,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect the entire project would be funded, but I’m hopeful that part of it might be funded that way.”

Federal loans, such as those administered through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, might be another possibility, CDOT officials said. The program provided $106.8 million for the roughly $345 million revamp of C-470, according to CDOT.

Whether President Donald Trump will initiate policies or programs that will offer the I-25 widening a boost remains a question. Trump has promised a $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan, which could involve selling off public assets to private entities such as toll companies. CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt told Colorado Politics that the only way Colorado highways would qualify for that is to sell toll lanes or complete tolling on stretches of interstate.

 

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Joey Bunch contributed to the reporting of this article.


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September 4, 20176min940

A state commission has begun exploring ways to realize Colorado transportation officials’ vision of passenger rail service that stretches up and down the Front Range.

The commission, which includes government representatives from Denver to Trinidad, has until Dec. 1 to submit to the legislature a plan detailing steps forward and funding options. The ultimate hope is a commuter rail that runs from Fort Collins to Pueblo, which probably would cost between $5 billion and $15 billion, said David Krutsinger, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s transit and rail program.

The group is also has a more immediate objective: rerouting Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line, which runs through the southeastern corner of the state, to include stops in Pueblo and Walsenburg. Officials say the route could be done in less than five years.

As politicians scrounge for funds to repair Colorado’s ailing highways and leaders in the Pikes Peak region search for the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to widen Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock, members of the commission see an opportunity to press a transportation solution that can sustain Colorado’s exploding population.

“The single-occupancy vehicle is just not going to be the best solution for the future of transportation in Colorado,” said commission member Jill Gaebler, who also is president pro tem of the Colorado Springs City Council. “We need to be thinking bigger and more long term.”

The commission will meet for the second time this week, and its 13 members plan to convene at least once a month, she said.

The commission, renamed and repurposed with a measure that was signed into a law by Gov. John Hickenlooper in May, was created in 2014 to devise a plan to rehabilitate more than 100 miles of track on Amtrak’s Chicago-to-Los Angeles line, which has stops in Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad, and consider options for the Chief’s expansion.

Senate Bill 153 tasked commissioners are now being asked to come up with sources for the millions of dollars needed to rehabilitate about 50 miles of remaining dilapidated track. Once fully completed, the improvements are expected to save trains up to two hours on each trip, with the two proposed stops tacking on an hour or less in travel time and the Pueblo station adding an estimated 14,000 more trips each year, according to CDOT.

The commission is unsure exactly how much the extension would cost, although Pueblo voters have already elected to set aside some money for it, said Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, the group’s interim chairman.

County voters approved in November a ballot question that would allow the county to spend excess revenues that would otherwise be returned to taxpayers under the provisions of Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, to fund a list of projects including the reroute. However, the amount of money each project will be allocated has yet to be finalized, Pace said.

The cost of extending the line will be relatively low, Pace said, because existing freight railways would be used, but there are still some remaining engineering challenges, including logistical negotiations with railroad lines and considerations related to platform construction and tracking of the trains.

“We see the Chief (reroute) as an incremental step,” he said. “The big prize is connecting the Front Range of Colorado via passenger rail.”

The price tag of a 180-mile commuter rail would vary, with a less-expensive line traveling at lower speeds on the existing freight train corridor, and a pricier line traveling up to 180 mph just east of I-25, Krutsinger said. But the state doesn’t currently have the money for either option. Paying for the massive undertaking probably would require voters to approve new taxes or an increase in the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since the early 1990s, he said.

Plus, there are political hurdles to creating a railway that crosses jurisdictional lines – such as where the stops should be located and how already-crowded city centers would make room for them. But Krutsinger said a commuter rail is essential if Colorado wants to keep up with other growing population centers in North America, such as Boston and Salt Lake City. The Front Range’s population, now more than 4 million, is expected to increase to upward of 6 million by 2040, he said.

“You look at cities with 6 million people, and they almost without exception have rail networks for their population. If we’re going to stay competitive, Colorado is going to need to do it.”


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August 14, 20178min140

By chipping away at The Gap, El Paso County voters could do something that some state legislators encourage and others dread: siphon off support for a statewide transportation plan by spending their money locally.

The Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority board last week approved a ballot question to ask voters if it’s OK to set aside $10 million to help pay to widen a 2-mile stretch of Interstate 25 in El Paso County. The seed money is part of a larger effort to widen the interstate from Monument to Castle Rock, a 17-mile stretch known as The Gap.

I-25 narrows to two lanes in each direction between the two reasonably well-off communities, causing traffic jams and collisions. The state Department of Transportation says it doesn’t have the money in its current budget, and state lawmakers haven’t figured out a way to get them enough. Statewide, CDOT needs $20 billion over the next 20 years just to keep up with growth, the agency contends.

CDOT has estimated the Gap will cost $290 million and $600 million. Colorado leaders have even appealed to the White House for help, calling the Gap a critical transportation corridor.

If voters allow it, the PPRTA would put up $10 billion for roughly a 2-mile stretch in El Paso County, if other money joins it. Where that money comes from, nobody knows.

President Trump has promised a $1 trillion national infrastructure investment, but it remains to be seen if he can pass it and how much, if any, would go to Colorado’s overburdened interstates. The result of getting that money, however, could mean toll roads.

The Gap is one of the three main arguments for voters and lawmakers to find money to address the state’s critical transportation needs. As symbolic projects go, the Gap joins I-25 from Denver to Fort Collins and the Interstate 70 mountain corridor as the chief selling points to statewide voters.

Legislators in the last session discussed a sales tax to pay back a $3.5 billion loan for projects statewide, including the Gap. Three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, including Colorado Springs’ Owen Hill, didn’t like the tax increase and voted down the bipartisan House Bill 1242.

Colorado Springs leaders were skeptical of raising the state sales tax, since  cities rely on sales taxes. Hiking the state sales tax would make it more difficult for local governments to pay for local projects in the future. The Colorado Springs Chamber and Economic Development Corp. preferred lawmakers look instead at the state gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1991.

Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran of Denver warned before the session started that if lawmakers didn’t pass a statewide plan, then communities such as El Paso County that can afford to pay for local needs won’t later support state money for communities that can’t.

El Paso County is proving she’s right.

Proponents of the El Paso County plan hope putting up local money will spur financial support from other local governments and make the project more attractive for federal and state dollars.

“Taking this to the voters shows consensus and solidarity and support,” said Jim Godfrey, chairman of the PPRTA Citizen Advisory Committee, which unanimously favored adding the issue to the ballot. “It would be hard for the state to ignore if we put money up against it.”

Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican from Douglas County, told Colorado Politics in June that communities should work on such local options, because statewide solutions are slow and elusive.

El Paso County voters might have the chance to approve another source of funding for the project, as well.

The County Commission is weighing options for what to do with about $15 million in excess tax revenue. Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, limits annual growth of some local government tax revenue and requires the surplus be returned to taxpayers or used for voter-approved purposes.

 

El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller hopes another ballot question will ask voters if some of the county’s revenue surplus — he’s pushing for $7.5 million — should go toward the I-25 widening. Commissioners have until Sept 8 to add issues to the ballot and finalize language.

The I-25 Gap Coalition, made up of state officials and local leaders from communities along the roughly 17-mile two-lane stretch of road, met for the first time in June to explore options to speed the widening.

“This is a huge step forward to get this on the ballot,” said Waller, vice chairman of the PPRTA board of directors and a former state House minority leader. “In order for us to be able to really make the case to the state and the federal government, it needs to be a collaborative effort.”

State and local leaders have so far been unsuccessful in identifying other sources of funding for the Gap, which state transportation officials say could be finished by 2021 if the money is available. Two federally-required environmental planning studies, paid for by money originally earmarked for the C-470 Express Lane, are currently under way, said Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman Bob Wilson.

CDOT hopes to find some contributors by the end of the year, Wilson said. Federal grants or state funds are two possibilities. In May, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law Senate Bill 267, a bipartisan omnibus bill aimed much more at helping rural hospitals and rural transportation than clogged interstates.

By monkeying around with how an assessment on hospital bed occupancy and selling and leasing back government buildings, the legislature thinks it can generate more than $1.8 billion for transportation over the next 20 years. But 25 percent off the top goes to rural counties and another 10 percent to transit. The rest of the money hasn’t been attached to specific projects yet. The Gap won’t get much in the next few years against many competitors for a divvied-out share.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct that Chris Holbert is the Senate majority leader not the house leader.


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July 16, 20174min170

Many people casting ballots in Colorado weren’t aware their voter registration information is available to anyone who asks until a federal commission requested it from the states.

Thousands of voters across the state, including more than 250 in El Paso County, have withdrawn their voter registrations or made their information confidential after the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in late June asked the Secretary of State’s Office for voter data.

The commission, created by President Donald Trump to investigate if voter fraud is going undetected, has since asked state officials to hold off on sending the information, citing a pending federal lawsuit that seeks a restraining order barring the data’s disclosure. Trump has claimed without providing evidence that millions of people voted illegally in the November election, costing him the popular vote, a charge disputed by state elections officials.

Since June 29, Williams’ office has received more than 1,000 calls and emails from voters, many of whom were surprised their voter registration wasn’t kept private, Lynn Bartels, a spokeswoman for Williams’ office, said last week.

Under Colorado law, a registered voter’s name, address, political party affiliation, date of affiliation, gender, year they were born and phone number are all public record. If the voter cast a ballot in a past election also is public record, although how the person voted is not.

In the past 18 months, requests for El Paso County voter registration records have come from elected officials, candidates, political operatives, special districts and other individuals.

Since the beginning of 2016, the county Clerk and Recorder’s Office has received 95 requests for reports including publicly available data for all or some of the county’s roughly 443,000 voters. Anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce, Republican politician and televangelist Gordon Klingenschmitt and a Gazette reporter are among those who paid the Clerk and Recorder’s Office $25 for a report.

Click here to see the full list.

While many states have either refused the request or not responded, Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams will comply with the request if the commission resubmits it, Bartels said.

In a letter sent Friday to the federal commission, however, Williams said there would be no way to determine the accuracy of voting rolls because his office won’t be providing confidential information such as the last four digits of a voter’s Social Security number.

Instead, he recommended the commission contact the Electronic Registration Information Center, a nonprofit organization made up of 20 states that aims to ensure governments have accurate lists of eligible voters.

In Colorado, registration information is kept secret only if a voter requests that it be confidential, which requires swearing under the penalty of perjury that disclosing the person’s address and other personal information could endanger his or her life.

Since 2016, the county Clerk and Recorder’s Office also logged 26 requests for weekly updates on changes to voter registration information, such as party affiliation or address. During that time, 13 special districts and local governments requested voter lists for their jurisdictions, which public agencies typically do when preparing ballots for an election, according to Mattie Albert, a spokeswoman for the Clerk and Recorder’s Office.

Those who request data must fill out a form specifying which of voters’ publicly available details they would like to receive.


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July 15, 20176min5
A few hundred El Paso County, Colorado residents expunged their voter registration information or made it confidential after a newly-formed federal commission asked state elections officials for the records last month, according to the county Clerk and Recorder’s Office. The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, established by President Donald Trump in May to determine […]

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July 2, 201711min160

A Miami-based correctional health care provider found a fresh start in El Paso County, winning a jail contract potentially worth up to $40 million eight months after it was banned from jails and prisons in New York state following a string of inmate deaths.

Armor Correctional Health Services Inc., a defendant in dozens of pending lawsuits nationwide over prisoners’ civil rights and allegations of substandard care, will provide medical services to the jail’s average daily population of roughly 1,500 inmates beginning July 15.

It will replace a similarly controversial provider, Correct Care Solutions of Nashville, Tenn., in a transition that illustrates what one criminal justice expert calls the “pingpong” effect: In the world of for-profit correctional health care, one embattled provider is often cut loose only to clear the way for another.
“Due to the contract violations or inadequate care that’s being provided, they’ll get rid of (one) company,” said Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Florida-based Human Rights Defense Center. “Then they’ll bring someone else in and they’ll find that – unfortunately, because all of the companies have the same business model – they tend to have the same problems.”

An Armor spokeswoman defended the company’s track record, saying the physician-owned operation focuses squarely on patient care. “Negative outcomes” are inevitable when a health care provider is responsible for tens of thousands of patients nationwide, many of them suffering from opiate addictions and other onerous health challenges, Yeleny Suarez said in a written statement. These complex medical problems, dumped on the doorsteps of jails and their privatized providers, often cut into staffing and resources that could otherwise be used to administer day-to-day health care to an already “vulnerable population,” she said.

Suarez declined to comment on lawsuits over inmate deaths filed against Armor in at least four of the eight states where it operates, saying the company doesn’t discuss legal matters.

County officials said the switch in contractors was not a result of problems with Correct Care Solutions, but, instead, an attempt to get taxpayers the best bang for their buck.

The contract will be prorated for the first six months, not to exceed $3.7 million, after which it can be renewed annually for up to five years.

Under Armor’s contract, the county will pay nearly 40 percent more for inmate medical services than it had been paying Correct Care Solutions, but the amount also would have increased if the county stuck with Correct Care, said county procurement specialist Ron Neely. County spokesman Dave Rose attributes the escalation to rising health care costs, better-defined standards for quality of medical services and a jail population that continues to inch upward.

Despite rising health care costs, Armor remains a financial juggernaut, with revenues of more than $540 million from 2010 to 2013, pocketing a yearly average of more than $88 million in profit, according to tax returns provided by Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attorney Greg Lauer, who is litigating a case against the company.

Critics say correctional health care companies have a simple strategy for remaining profitable: cut services.

“They know all the tricks. They make it so they can skimp here and skimp there and ultimately provide less effective health care,” said Dr. Jody Rich, co-director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Brown University. “To relegate a basic function of a state to an entity that’s focused on making profit really doesn’t smell right to me.”

Lawsuits and payouts

Armor faces more than 100 pending lawsuits filed in state and federal courts nationwide – many of them alleging negligence, medical malpractice or violations of inmates’ civil rights.

In October, it was barred from contracting with jails in New York under the terms of a settlement with the state attorney general, who sued the company for failing to provide adequate care. The company also agreed to a $350,000 payout – a small fraction of the millions of dollars the company has been ordered to shell out or agreed to pay in lawsuits stemming from similar claims. In April, a federal jury ordered Armor to pay more than $7 million to the family of an inmate – a combat veteran who suffered from PTSD and addiction issues – who hanged himself at a jail in Nassau County in New York five years earlier.

The company agreed in 2015 to a $100,000 settlement in a lawsuit filed over the death of Tommie Lee Jones, who died at a jail in New York’s Niagara County, according to Newsday.

In 2013, it ponied up $800,000 to the family of Allen Hicks Sr., who died in a jail in Hillsborough County in Florida a year earlier after suffering a stroke that went untreated for roughly 36 hours, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Armor was also involved in a 2015 settlement with the family of Raleigh Priester, a mentally ill man who shed 120 pounds before starving to death while in custody in Broward County three years earlier. Terms of the settlement are confidential.

But Lauer, who represented Priester’s family, said the payouts are small compared with the company’s bottom line.

“It’s cheaper to pay off the lawsuits and the liability then actually do things the right way and take care of people,” Lauer said.

Moving into Colorado

Armor is part of a small group of big companies that are capable of providing medical services for hundreds of inmates at a time, experts in privatization and correctional health care say. It’s not quite the size of industry titans Corizon Correctional Health and Correct Care Solutions, both of which provide care to hundreds of thousands of inmates in dozens of states, according to In the Public Interest, a research and policy organization that tracks privatization in various industries.

The newly chosen provider was founded in 2004 in Broward County by Dr. Jose Armas, who is also the sole shareholder, according to tax returns Lauer provided. It has since expanded to eight states, providing care to roughly 40,000 inmates in jails and prisons. Its largest presence is in its home state, where it has roughly 1,300 employees working at 19 jails, company spokesman Suarez said.
El Paso County will be Armor’s third client in Colorado, where it has contracts with Weld and Larimer county jails. Both counties also made the switch from Correct Care Solutions to Armor this year, although officials say the shift wasn’t related to complaints over performance.

Weld County and Correct Care Solutions are facing a lawsuit over the death of Barton Grubbs, an inmate who downed two bottles of pills shortly after his arrest in 2014.

Some counties have chosen Armor after facing lawsuits over subpar care, according to media reports. Lee County in Florida selected Armor in 2014 – roughly three years after the county and its then-contractor, Corizon, were sued by the sister of an inmate who suffered permanent brain damage trying to hang himself in the shower, reported the Naples Daily News.

Profits vs. care

Inmate defense attorneys, medical experts and privatization specialists acknowledge that there are problems across the board with correctional health care, whether it’s administered by a private company or public entity. But some agree that the issues are exacerbated by the corporate profit incentive, and the outcome often isn’t worth the lower costs contractors sometimes offer.

“You can get cheap private care, but the quality and quantity suffer,” said Roland Zullo, a researcher at the University of Michigan who specializes in privatization. “If you instead look at the value of it, which is what you get for what you pay for, privatization does not work – certainly not for this service.”

It’s a struggle that is seldom short-lived. Public agencies are typically reluctant to hire their medical staff after they’ve put health care out for private bid, added Zullo, who has studied private and public correctional health care models in Michigan.

“Once a political body makes a decision to privatize, it becomes very difficult for them politically to admit that it was a mistake. So when it fails, the usual response from them is, ‘We’ll give it another try,'” he said.

Not all industry experts concur that the money motive is an inherent flaw in privatized correctional health care systems.

Dr. Marc Stern, former health services director for the Washington state Department of Corrections, believes pinning the blame on for-profit providers is unfair. Issues with privatized health care often arise from a lack of oversight, he said.

No federal agencies monitor jails to ensure that health care is adequately provided. Some states, such as New York, have formed boards or commissions to oversee conditions at correctional institutions, but Colorado has no such regulatory body.

“If we focus on private companies being the problem, I think we’re focusing on the wrong problem,” said Stern, who now teaches at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. “We just, as a community, don’t put enough money into correctional health care.”