AURORA | Dilapidated neighborhood streets across Aurora are due for a facelift starting in 2023, as the city prepares to use $35 million borrowed without voter approval to catch up on a backlog of deferred road maintenance.
Over the next two years, roads in 35 neighborhoods across the city will be rehabilitated, starting with those identified as having the most urgent structural problems.
“With this one-time money, we’re going to be able to get these maintenance needs taken care of,” said Councilmember Dustin Zvonek, who sponsored the Build Up Aurora plan. “From here, I’d like to see us start chipping away at that list of capital projects that are needed in our city.”
Along with crime and homelessness, the condition of Aurora’s roads was one of the top concerns that Zvonek said he heard from constituents while on the campaign trail in 2021.
Aurora community activists and city leaders have been unable for several years to persuade local voters to approve large roads packages, offering plans with low new taxes and even no new taxes.
Lynne Center, deputy director of public works for the city, told the City Council in May that the average condition of the nearly 1,300 miles of roadway managed by the city was approximately 69 on a scale of 1 to 100. The city’s website states that 58% of the city’s road network would be rated as “fair” or worse, according to national standards.
The $35 million behind the Build Up Aurora plan was borrowed using certificates of participation. It’s a financing tool that can be used by cities in the same way as general obligation bonds, while bypassing certain state laws on government-incurred debt.
While general obligation bonds are subject to a section of the Colorado Constitution that generally requires local governments to get the approval of voters before issuing debt to be paid off over multiple years, certificates of participation are uniquely exempt from that requirement, leading some fiscal conservatives to view the tool as an end-run around the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
“There is a longstanding provision in our state’s constitution that multi-year debt can’t be issued without a vote of the people,” said Joshua Sharf, senior fellow in fiscal policy at the Independence Institute. “It is possible to be fiscally responsible with certificates of participation, but the temptation to misuse them is why we don’t like them.”
Sharf acknowledged that he had limited knowledge of Build Up Aurora or how Aurora planned to use the certificates of participation issued as part of the plan.
Center and Aurora’s budget officer, Greg Hays, said in an email that the city had issued close to $32 million in debt in September, raising $35 million in project funds. The city expects to make annual payments of about $2.5 million every year through 2042 to pay down the debt, they said.
Aurora has struggled for years to keep up with a backlog of road repairs. Zvonek said the problem dated back to the Great Recession, when the city decided to dial back road maintenance as a way of saving money.
“The gap just grew over time, and the roads that weren’t repaired became much more expensive to repair,” he said. “We weren’t keeping up.”
Starting in 2016, budgetary constraints also meant the city would only prioritize busier roads, and maintenance was timed using a fixed schedule rather than flexibly based on the degradation of the pavement itself, city representatives said.
“With Build Up Aurora and the one-time addition of funds, we are able to return to prioritizing all classifications of streets based on pavement condition,” city spokeswoman Julie Patterson wrote in an email.
With the most expensive repairs funded by the certificates of participation and more money budgeted for road maintenance moving forward, it will again be possible for the city to stay on top of maintenance needs moving forward, Zvonek said
Residential streets throughout the city in need of repairs — including everything from concrete repair to street reconstruction — have been identified and included on a map of projects scheduled to break ground in 2023.
Hays and Center wrote that the city has awarded one of three contracts for concrete repair — including curb, gutter and sidewalk work — while the other two contracts were moving through the process for advertising. Pavement rehabilitation contracts would likely be advertised early in the first quarter of 2023, they wrote.
Zvonek said he began formulating the idea for the Build Up Aurora plan before he was elected to the council, when he was still serving as a volunteer on the Citizens’ Advisory Budget Committee. The City Council voted unanimously in June and July to approve the issuance of certificates of participation for the plan.
According to the Build Up Aurora webpage, the first repair projects will focus on concrete repair, followed by paving work, with the most degraded roads receiving attention first.
On the topic of financing the city’s capital projects, Zvonek said he would be interested in earmarking the money that the city spends currently on debt service for projects with the idea that, once the associated debts are paid down, the money would be ready to commit to another project.
He also defended the use of certificates of participation, saying that raising the same money via a general obligation bond would have required the city to wait until the fall 2023 election to ask voters for permission, while the problem of crumbling roads is affecting residents today.
“You’re not going to find many more ardent defenders of TABOR than me, but I do think certificates of participation can be a smart way for local governments to address capital needs when we don’t necessarily need to go to taxpayers,” he said.
“We’re never going to have $30 million or $50 million just sitting around to pay as we go. I think we need to figure out creative ways to do debt financing.”