Peter Blake

Blake: Long odds for breakaway creation of Aurora County

The idea of turning Aurora into its own city and county is an issue that won’t die. It comes around sporadically, unpredictably, like fire, drought, locusts and Super Bowl blowouts.

Denver did it in 1902, Broomfield 99 years later. Aurora has been kicking the idea around for three decades, starting with a study in the 1980s.

When it was put before the city’s voters in 1996, the voters rejected it by a 56-44 margin.

This time, the concept is being pushed primarily by Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan. Not many others have joined in, as yet.

“I’ve not seen anyone ready to fall on their sword” for a combined city and county, said Aurora Councilwoman Sally Mounier. “I’m not even sure the mayor would do it.”

Two years ago the city ordered up a study on the issue. It cost about a quarter million dollars. A draft report is now floating around among city and county leaders but it hasn’t been made public yet.

icon_op_edAlmost 90 percent of Aurora’s 335,000 residents live in Arapahoe County; most of the balance in Adams County, lying north of Colfax Avenue. Adams County has Aurora’s oldest, poorest neighborhoods. The Anschutz Medical Campus has been an economic boon to the Adams County part — but it doesn’t pay property taxes. A recent annexation extends into Douglas County.

Turning Aurora into its own county would split what’s left of Arapahoe into three or more noncontiguous islands That in itself wouldn’t be fatal, according to Arapahoe County Commissioner Bill Holen, since the county already includes Glendale, an enclave inside Denver.

But the cost might be. He said the study projects it to be $350 million, but he thinks it would be closer to $500 million, since such studies traditionally lowball construction and staffing costs.

The new county would have to build its own jail, its own courthouse, a coroner’s office, and various motor vehicle offices, as well as a Human Services structure. All would have to be staffed.

The county already runs its Human Services branch on Alameda Avenue, not far from city hall. Couldn’t the city just take it over?

No, said Holen. “We’d charge them market price.”

Holen, who worked for former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart and Rep. Ed Perlmutter before launching his own political career, isn’t just worrying about the diminished power of Arapahoe commissioners should Aurora withdraw. He notes he would be term-limited before the move could take effect.

Aurora, Holen said, has 48 percent of Arapahoe County’s population, but only 31 percent of the assessed valuation. “That’s a big red flag right there.” And 60 percent of the people visiting the Human Services department are from Aurora, he said. But the majority of the funding comes from the higher assessed valuation in southern Arapahoe, where the Tech Center, Greenwood Village and Cherry Hills are. Aurora would have to raise taxes to pay the difference or reduce services if it split off.

Mayor Hogan told The Denver Post only two of Arapahoe’s five commissioners represent Aurora, meaning the city is shortchanged on pass-through money from the federal government, which focuses more on counties than cities.

That’s false, said Holen, who said four of them represent at least part of Aurora. He also rattled off a number of subsidies that the county provides to the Aurora Chamber of Commerce and the Aurora Economic Development Council that would go away in a divorce.

If Aurora became a county it would join Colorado Counties Inc., the trade association. “We would certainly be happy to have another county member,” said John “Chip” Taylor, CCI’s executive director, “but we need to be aware of the impact on existing members.” He also noted that Arapahoe would end up as a collection of “islands” if Aurora left.

“I am not going to be for this unless it would seriously benefit my constituents, said Councilwoman Mounier. She intends to discuss the pros and cons at meetings with her various neighborhood groups.

But even if Aurorans vote to become their own county, the move would still have to be approved by a statewide vote later.

And that’s not going to happen, Mounier predicted. “All the Arapahoe commissioners would have to do is call their colleagues on the Western Slope and say, ‘We can’t have it.’ ”

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com

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