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Colorado Springs City Council kills plastic bag tax

COLORADO SPRINGS—The Colorado Springs City Council turned down a proposal by Councilmember Yolanda Avila to impose a ten-cent charge on all one-use plastic bags offered to customers by city businesses.  While the measure was presented as a “fee,” at least one council member pointed out that because the money could be used for various purposes, the charge amounted to a new tax rather than a fee.

Avila’s plan was to submit the proposed ordinance to the voters at the November election.

Avila’s original plan was to ban one-use plastic bags entirely, but she ran up against a state statute that says local governments shall not “require or prohibit the use or sale of specific types of plastic materials or products or restrict or mandate containers, packaging, or labeling for any consumer products.”

So she chose to try and have a 10-cent per bag charge approved instead.

Avila, evidently frustrated at what she believes is Mayor Suthers’ resistance to the idea, tried to bypass the Mayor by asking the Council to place the matter on the ballot because, she said, “I don’t think there’s one way to skin a cat, but the process, which should be just the council deciding on an ordinance on a bag fee, well, that would never happen, because the Mayor’s clearly said that he would veto [it].”

The Mayor has the power to veto legislative measures passed by the Council, which can be overridden by a six-vote majority on the Council, but cannot veto an ordinance referred to the voters.

The ordinance created a complicated system for accounting for each plastic bag a customer used to carry merchandise from the store. It also provided penalties for merchants who failed to account for every bag or failed to charge for them.

The ordinance specifically provided that the store could not fold the “fee” into their cost of doing business and not charge customers. Businesses were required to charge the customer ten cents for every bag used.

One reason stated for this rule was the intent to “change the behavior” of consumers by forcing them to think about their impact on the environment.

During her presentation of the ordinance Avila pointed to problems with trash in the city, and said that part of the bag charge could be used to fund education and cleanup efforts.

In response, Councilmember Wayne Williams pointed out that because the charge was proposed to be used for more than paying for the specific issue of one-use plastic bags, it was not a fee, but a tax.

“I don’t think council has the ability to this because I believe this is a tax, and I believe that the language, well, [the] intention is deceptive in the ballot issue,” Williams said. “Calling it a fee does not change what I believe is very much a tax.”

The ballot issue companion to the ordinance itself begins by stating, “Without imposing any new taxes or increasing any existing taxes…”

Councilmember Jill Gaebler said that many stores are planning to eliminate plastic bags altogether by 2025. “The market is working, that’s how it should work,” said Gaebler. “I don’t feel like I need to force people to recycle or use reusable bags.”

She also said that some stores do not allow reusable fabric bags. “I shop a lot at Trader Joe’s, and they are one of the stores, and I don’t really like bring up names of stores, but they do not at all in any way, shape or form allow me to bring in my reusable bag.”

Councilmember Tom Strand said, “We went to King Soopers over the weekend and spent about $180 on our groceries. I had 23 plastic bags. That would be $2.30 for some people. That would be monies that would make a difference to them.”

Avila took the opportunity as the final speaker to remark on the composition of the City Council and suggest a pay raise.

“I do want to address something, and that is this council is not representative of the citizens,” Avila said. “This is a democracy, and under the Constitution I’m a citizen too, and I have a right to state my truth. The median age of Colorado Springs citizens is 34.6. There is not one council member here that is in their thirties or forties…that is not representative. There are just over 50% more women than men. We have two women on council. As long as we don’t have counsel pay, it’s only people that are supported by their spouse or have another job or have good pensions. So I am going to stick by that, and I have every right to express my truth without anybody taking it personally, and I will continue to do so, and I hope that I will be supported by my colleagues.”

Avila stated in her opening presentation that she felt the Council was not representative of the city’s residents, and several Council members expressed objections to her statement during the hearing, saying that they were elected by the residents of their districts and were representing them to the best of their ability.

After the vote on the two measures, Council President Richard Skorman agreed with Avila saying, “I agree that until there’s council pay, we will have a council that will mostly be retired people. It’s more than a 40-hour-a-week job, as we all know. We are one of the biggest cities in the country that doesn’t pay its council members a decent fee, and I think it would be a nice thing to be able to have a more diverse council. I’m not saying that that we aren’t a good counsel, it’s just that we don’t represent the community like we should.

Both measures failed on a 6-3 vote, with Avila, Murray and Skorman voting aye.

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