Homelessness is one of three pillar issues a $400 million ballot measure announced this week by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is intended to address.
The mayor held a surprise news conference Wednesday. He said the economy, homelessness and the safety of the community are the biggest challenges Denver faces. He wants to put a $400 million general obligation bond question on the ballot that will address those ills and stimulate the economy.
But will taxpayers support going into debt for such a large sum, especially when a similar stimulus package was passed by voters as recently as 2008?
In theory, a windfall of sorts could converge in terms of dollars allocated for homeless services. Unlike President Trump, President Biden has made addressing homelessness a priority. Millions of dollars are included in the federal CARES COVID-19 relief package to address homelessness. Money for addressing homelessness also is included in the American Rescue plan.
If Denver can put matching funds from the ballot measure with federal dollars, potentially tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars could be amassed. That’s because the federal government usually awards larger grants to cities willing to chip in on projects.
Councilwoman CdeBaca skeptical of mayor’s plan
City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca wasted little time issuing a rebuttal to the mayor’s $400 million plan.
“He is … assuming that council will automatically support this and refer it to the ballot for you to vote on in November,” CdeBaca wrote in a News Break post. “I don't doubt they will. There is what seems to be a common perception that we need to borrow money we hope we can pay back later to ‘jumpstart the economy.’
“We just raised property taxes on all of you to generate revenues/dollars we lost during the shutdown of 2020. We have had so many businesses close down and neighbors move because of the seemingly endless construction on everything. They keep comparing this recovery trajectory to the 2008 recession which was a very different economy here in Denver. This is not the same. Back in 2008 we were not as far down the hole as we have gone.”
Hancock offers few details, says community input key
Hancock and city brass spoke of investment in infrastructure spurring thousands of jobs. They said the city already has $4 billion in projects in the pipeline.
As members of the media repeatedly pressed Hancock and city staff to declare what projects might be funded, they replied the community will help decide. They intend to host meetings where people can provide input on project ideas.
Hancock said the money coming from the federal government represents the largest stimulus packages since the Great Depression. “We are grateful to have a president we can partner with.” He called now a “generational opportunity” to leverage millions of dollars to do good.
Hancock said it’s time to “leverage the investment,” and as President Biden said, “It’s time to go big.” He said individual agencies receiving federal funds – say the Denver Housing Authority, Denver Health hospital and the RTD – could leverage individual funds they receive together for bigger impact projects.
Homeless shelters, permanent housing possible projects
The city boasts a AAA bond rating. Denver has weathered the economic recession associated with the pandemic by relying on reserves. Some of the bond money could help replenish the reserves.
Investment in infrastructure could mean building more permanent homeless housing or more emergency shelters. It will be the first time that so much money is made available for homeless services all at once.
Hancock offered little specifics on how the bond issue would help people experiencing homelessness, other than to say there would be “new investments in services to our unhoused residents and those in need of more affordable housing.”
CdeBaca supports spending money on housing. “Perhaps if this bond were 100 percent for social housing, we would have a reason to support it,” she wrote. “Or maybe even to municipalize broadband or our energy company. Maybe even to entirely address our pedestrian and bike network.
“But it's not. It will be a hodgepodge of favors and window dressing that will fail to address anything comprehensively in a visionary way. Maybe I am being pessimistic ... maybe I'm wrong.”
CdeBaca: Construction workers can’t afford Denver
CdeBaca also doubts that people will flock to Denver for construction jobs and be able to afford to live here.
“Bringing people to do construction in Denver when they cannot afford to live here doesn't sound like a great plan to me,” she stated. “They will sell this to you as equity and being about jobs or about small minority and women owned businesses. Ask those small minority businesses how they have been served thus far and how easy it is for them to bid on large infrastructure projects.”
The number of jobs created by a $400 million stimulus could be as many as 40,000, city staff said. They also emphasized that investing in infrastructure means investing in people and jobs training as well as bridges and buildings.
Staff also mentioned the stimulus would include assistance for family caregivers. Family caregivers often struggle financially while caring for a loved one. This has been especially true during the COVID-19 epidemic.