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By now, most ballots for the upcoming election have made it to their intended mailbox. That means it is time to start filling in those bubbles, before taking selections to one of the secure, 24-hour drop boxes.
While Denverites won’t be tasked with electing state or federal officials, this cycle’s ballot does include an array of measures to scrutinize ahead of the November 2 deadline. With the highest number of citizen-led initiatives in at least two decades, and $450 million in bond proposals submitted by Mayor Michael Hancock, this year’s election holds vast implications for the Mile High City.
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Here, we put together a guide for understanding all 13 measures.
(Read More: Your Guide to Colorado’s 2021 Ballot Measures)
Bond Measures (2A-2E)
Mayor Hancock’s bond measures, bundled under the name RISE Denver (Rebuilding for an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy), represent $450 million in proposed government borrowing. The money—obtained by issuing general obligation bonds, as opposed to revenue generated by a tax hike—would be used to pay for a wide spectrum of infrastructure projects, including updates to Denver’s transportation system, renovations of homeless shelters, and the construction of a new arena at the National Western Center campus.
Proponents of the borrowing package, like Denver’s chief financial officer Brendan Hanlon, say these investments will help accelerate the city’s recovery from the COVID-19 shutdown. The expectation is that the projects would generate an estimated $1 billion in economic output, creating jobs and revitalizing industries, like tourism and entertainment, that suffered badly during the pandemic.
This isn’t the first time Denverites have been asked to approve a hefty borrowing package. In 2017, a similar bond measure—Elevate Denver—was passed to the tune of nearly $1 billion, of which an estimated 40 percent has yet to be spent. Because there is still money leftover from the 2017 package, as well as the potential for a huge amount of federal aid from two proposed spending bills in Congress, some elected officials, like Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, are skeptical of the city’s need for additional investments.
A regular critic of the mayor’s, CdeBaca stood out as the only member of City Council to vote against all five measures, seeing them as a “hodgepodge of favors and window dressing that will fail to address anything comprehensively in a visionary way.” Opponents of the package have also raised concern that the city could be forced to increase property taxes, which have already risen steeply in recent years due to a heightened demand for housing, to ensure repayment of the debt accrued.
Here is a further breakdown of each individual measure:
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What you’ll see: “Shall the city and county of Denver debt be increased $104,040,000, with a maximum repayment cost of $179,175,000, with no expected increase in the city’s current rate of taxation for general obligation debt service based on the city’s projected assessed value, the proceeds thereof to be used for repairs and improvements to the Denver facilities system…”
What it means: The $104 million will be used to pay for Denver facility projects, like repairs to the Denver Botanic Gardens, Bonfils Theater Complex, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Denver Zoo, and the city-owned youth empowerment center, as well as the construction of two new libraries in Globeville and Westwood. The measure would also include funding for accessibility upgrades to Denver facilities to accommodate people with disabilities.
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What you’ll see: “Shall the city and county of Denver debt be increased $38,600,000, with a maximum repayment cost of $66,476,000, with no expected increase in the city’s current rate of taxation for general obligation debt service based on the city’s projected assessed value, the proceeds thereof to be used for repairs and improvements to the Denver housing and sheltering system…”
What it means: The $38.6 million from this bond will allow the government to redevelop and buy buildings to convert into shelters for the homeless. The pandemic has exacerbated the city’s homelessness crisis, and proponents see the measure as a way of tempering its worst effects. The money would provide between 200 to 300 rooms in non-congregate shelters across the city. Non-congregate shelters, which allow residents to have their own rooms, emerged during the pandemic to give individuals a place to properly quarantine, an advantage not offered by traditional homeless shelters.
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What you’ll see: “Shall the city and county of Denver debt be increased $63,320,000 with a maximum repayment cost of $109,048,000, with no expected increase in the city’s current rate of taxation for general obligation debt service based on the city’s projected assessed value, the proceeds thereof to be used for repairs and improvements to the Denver transportation and mobility system…”
What it means: The $63.3 million produced by this bond will be used for transportation projects, including expanding the city’s sidewalk network, improving bike infrastructure by renovating existing bike lanes and creating new ones, reconstructing stretches of the Morrison Road corridor to develop a cultural and arts district, and building an urban trail and pedestrian walkway in downtown Denver.
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What you’ll see: “Shall the city and county of Denver debt be increased $54,070,000 with a maximum repayment cost of $93,118,000, with no expected increase in the city’s current rate of taxation for general obligation debt service based on the city’s projected assessed value, the proceeds thereof to be used for repairs and improvements to the Denver parks and recreation system…”
What it means: The $54 million will be used to build two new parks, one in northeast Denver and another in the south part of the city. Funds will also help replace playground and recreation equipment, restore athletic courts and fields, renovate public bathrooms and add new ones at existing parks, as well as rebuild the swimming pool at Mestizo-Curtis Park.
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What you’ll see: “Shall the city and county of Denver debt be increased $190,000,000 with a maximum repayment cost of $327,212,000, with no expected increase in the city’s current rate of taxation for general obligation debt service based on the city’s projected assessed value, the proceeds thereof to be used for repairs and improvements to the National Western Campus facilities system…”
What it means: This measure asks for $190 million to fund the construction of a new multi-use arena and renovation of a historic building at the National Western Campus. The arena would be used for a range of purposes, among them concerts, local and high school sporting events, and the rodeo. By far the largest share of the RISE proposal, 2E has also proven the most contentious.
Four members of City Council—Robin Kniech, Amanda Sandoval, Candi CdeBaca and Paul Kashmann—voted against putting the measure on the ballot, citing concerns over the speed at which it was introduced and doubts that it would actually benefit the impacted neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. Councilwoman CdeBaca, who represents these communities, has stressed that the project does not represent her constituents’ interests and that those who will be most affected by it were not adequately consulted. Still, the mayor and other proponents insist that the bond proposal would create jobs for residents in the area and breathe life back into Denver’s entertainment industry.
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What you’ll see: “Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver repeal Ordinance No. 2020-0888, regulating residential care facilities, such as elderly residents and people experiencing homelessness, by size rather than use; allowing community corrections facilities to locate in commercial and mixed-use zoning districts and removing the buffer from residential zones and schools for such facilities; and increasing the number of unrelated adults who can live together in a household from two to five with up to one licensed car per adult plus one additional vehicle per household?”
What it means: In February, City Council passed the Group Living Amendment, which revised Denver’s zoning code to allow up to five unrelated individuals to live in a single home. A “yes” vote on this initiative would help repeal that decision. Safe and Sound Denver, a group founded by Denver residents who rejected parts of the amendment, gathered 13,642 signatures to put this countermeasure on the ballot. They argue that the rule change will negatively impact quality of life by overpopulating neighborhoods that lack the infrastructure—trash services, parking availability, and police and fire resources—needed to accommodate such growth.
The measure has strong opposition from Mayor Hancock, 11 of 13 City Council Members, and a coalition called Keep Denver Housed, who organized to help campaign against it. All of these parties say the amendment passed earlier this year has provided much-needed affordable housing to nurses, teachers, grocery store employees, and other essential workers whose services helped Denver endure the worst stretches of the pandemic. According to Safe and Sound member Florence Sebern, the city has no proof that the zoning change has alleviated the ongoing housing crisis, calling it part of an “unproven agenda.”
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What you’ll see: “Shall the Charter of the City and County of Denver be amended to allow the citizen oversight board to appoint the independent monitor with consent of city council, providing the office of the monitor with independent legal counsel and establishing employment status of employees?”
What it means: The Office of the Independent Monitor, which remains vacant after Nick Mitchell stepped down as its head in December, is responsible for overseeing disciplinary investigations into the Denver Sheriff Department and Denver Police Department. Mitchell resigned from the post last year after his office released a damning report of the Denver Police Department’s conduct surrounding the racial justice protests that summer. The law enforcement watchdog has historically been chosen by the mayor, and this measure would hand that appointment power over to an already existing volunteer Citizen Oversight Board, granting the monitor more independence and minimizing the potential for conflicts of interest. City Council voted unanimously to put the measure on this year’s ballot, and it faces no formal opposition, though those in favor of a strong-mayor system would possibly vote against it.
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What you’ll see: “Shall the Charter of the City and County of Denver be amended to move the general election for the City and County of Denver from the first Tuesday in May of odd-numbered years to the first Tuesday in April of odd-numbered years to bring the City and County of Denver into compliance with federal and state laws for mailing June runoff election ballots to military and overseas citizens ballots forty-five days before Election Day?”
What it means: Voting “yes” on 2H supports shifting the city’s general municipal elections back one month, from May to April. Proposed by Denver Clerk and Recorder Paul López, the measure would put the city in compliance with state and federal laws that require ballots be sent to military and overseas citizens at least 45 days before an election. The present 30-day window between the general election—which typically presents a crowded field of candidates for city council and mayor—and the runoff election in June, makes it challenging for the Denver Elections office to prepare new ballots and get them to military and overseas voters with sufficient time to respond. The measure faces no formal opposition.
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What you’ll see: “Shall Denver retail marijuana sales tax be increased by $7 million annually, beginning January 1, 2022, and by whatever additional amounts are raised annually thereafter, from a one and one-half (1.5) percent retail marijuana sales tax to be used to fund:
- Pandemic research for advanced technologies to protect the public from the spread of pandemic pathogens, including at schools, businesses, and hospitals;
- Pandemic research for pandemic preparedness and recovery, including urban, economic, and school planning…”
What it means: If passed, ordinance 300 would increase recreational marijuana sales tax by 1.5 percent, and use the added revenue to fund local pandemic research. Promoted and funded by a national advocacy group called Guarding Against Pandemics, the measure’s signatories emphasize the importance of protecting Denver from future pandemics by investing in research that develops disinfection and sterilization technology, enhances PPE, and rethinks public policy and planning.
Opponents like Joshua Sharf, the former vice-chair of the Denver County Republican Party, argue that the proposed tax hike would simply relapse the recreational marijuana industry back into the black market sphere, an outcome that could later increase taxes as law enforcement combats the resulting spike in criminal activity. Detractors have also rightfully noted that University of Colorado Denver CityCenter, the intended recipient for any funds generated, has played a minimal role in drafting the bill and prepared no formal plan for how they would spend the money if it passed.
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What you’ll see: “Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver adopt a measure prohibiting the following without the approval of voters in a regularly scheduled municipal or special election:
- Any commercial or residential development on land designated as a city park and land protected by a City-owned conservation easement except where consistent with park purposes, conservation easement purposes, or for cultural facilities, and
- Any partial or complete cancellation of a City-owned conservation easement unless for the purpose of creating a new park?”
What it means: Although neither one mentions it by name, measures 301 and 302 are directly tied to a long dispute over the former Park Hill Golf Course. The 155-acre plot in Northeast Park Hill currently falls under a conservation easement, which means it’s shielded from development until the city decides otherwise. If passed, 301 would make it so that any planned development on properties covered by a conservation easement or designated as a city park would first need the approval of Denver voters. The group advocating for the measure, Save Open Space Denver, notes that a mere five percent of Denver’s land is dedicated to parks and recreation, compared to the 15 percent average for America’s 100 largest cities. The group is adamant that the city, which also registers some of the worst Ozone pollution in the country, faces an environmental crisis if development—particularly projects that intrude on pollutant-trapping green spaces—continues unchecked.
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What you’ll see: “Shall the Voters of the City and County of Denver adopt a measure to do the following: 1) amend the definition of conservation easement to apply only to conservation easements which have been reviewed and approved by the Division of Conservation and for which an income tax credit certificate has been issued by the Division of Conservation pursuant to C.R.S. §§ 12-15-105 and 106; 2) require voter approval before the City allows residential or commercial construction on City park land or City property protected by a conservation easement with exceptions for limited construction related to recreational use, cultural facilities, or construction consistent with the terms of a conservation easement; and 3) require voter approval to extinguish a City-owned conservation easement?”
What it means: Initiative 302 was spearheaded by Westside Investment Partners, the firm that bought the Park Hill Golf Course back in 2019 with the intention of lifting its conservation easement and building a mixed-use development on the land. Initiative 302 is a direct response, or countermeasure, to initiative 301. It would revise the definition of “conservation easement” in Denver’s municipal code to exclude the Park Hill Golf Course and effectively clear the property for development. Surveys conducted by the city suggest that most residents of Northeast Park Hill approve of the mixed-use development project. Westside argues that measure 301 marks yet another case of outsiders imposing their will on a historically marginalized community. It’s not clear what, if any, other properties under conservation easement would be affected by these proposals, as they were crafted solely with the Park Hill Golf Course in mind.
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What you’ll see: “Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver adopt an ordinance requiring the City and County of Denver to enforce unauthorized camping, providing a process for private enforcement if the City fails to enforce unauthorized camping; allowing the City to establish up to four authorized camping locations on public property where the City must provide running water, restroom facilities and lighting; and funding such camping locations with city revenues to support the city’s homeless population?”
What it means: In 2012, the city passed an ordinance that prohibited unauthorized camping on private property. Under the ban—and federal court orders—officials must give violators at least seven days notice before an encampment’s removal. This measure, sponsored by the chair of the Denver Republican Party, Garrett Flicker, and funded by a dark-money group called Defend Colorado, would allow property owners to sue the city if it failed to clean and close a homeless encampment within 72 hours of a formal complaint. Flicker’s measure would also require the city to establish up to four publicly funded camping sites—complete with running water, restroom facilities, and lighting—for those experiencing homelessness.
Denver City Council issued a proclamation earlier this month opposing the ordinance. In it, they challenge the proposal’s vague plan for costly taxpayer-funded campsites and point out that the measure acts in direct violation of federal court orders that mandate a seven-day notice before the removal of an unauthorized encampment. The Denver City Attorney’s Office recently filed suit in the hopes of blocking certain provisions of Initiative 303. It will be up to Denver’s District Court to decide in a “pre-election review” what subsections of the initiative are unlawful. The city has also made clear that the measure would face additional legal challenges if it passed.
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What you’ll see: “Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver adopt an ordinance reducing the total sales and use tax levied in the City and County of Denver from 4.81 to 4.5 percent; setting the aggregate total sales and use tax levied at 4.5 percent; and requiring that if at any election the people of the City and County of Denver pass a special sales and use tax that exceeds the aggregate 4.5 percent the City must adjust the existing tax levy to comply with the 4.5 percent aggregate?”
What it means: Another measure proposed by Garrett Flicker, initiative 304 would lower the city’s sales and use tax from 4.81 to 4.5 percent and then cap it at this reduced rate. Flicker believes the tax cut would come as a “much-needed break” for low-income residents, who he says suffer disproportionately from higher sales tax. Denver City Council, which could repeal the measure if it passed, unanimously oppose the proposed tax reduction. The group argues that lowering the sales tax rate would drastically impact the city’s budget and jeopardize its ability to pay for vital services like road repairs, preschool and college funding, park maintenance, and programs for homelessness and mental health. While detailing his budget proposal for next year, Mayor Hancock called the measure a “threat” to the city’s post-pandemic economic recovery.
Editor’s note, 10/29/21: This article has been updated with language that clarifies initiative 2G would hand the power to appoint leadership for the Office of the Independent Monitor to an already existing volunteer Citizen Oversight Board. A “yes” vote would not create a new Citizen Oversight Board.