Behind the Springs podcast: take the "ball" by the horns

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This week we're talking to Colorado Springs City Council President Richard Skorman. Find out how a group of middle school kids helped get a law passed that was later adopted by other cities across the country. If you're not familiar with what city council does or how what they do affects your everyday life, don't feel bad! Just tune into this episode of Behind the Springs! We made it fun, promise!

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Episode Transcript

Intro: (00:00)
Behind the Springs. Full transparency and inside. Look at your local government. Colorado Springs, nearly 500,000 people, Olympic city, USA, garden of the gods, Pikes peak. We are a growing city. Our local government has a lot of employees. What exactly do they do? how does it impact my life? This is where you find out behind the Springs and inside look at your local government.

Jen: (00:30)
Thanks for listening everyone. Have you ever been to a Colorado Springs city council meeting?

Ted: (00:36)
Do you know who your city council representative is?

Jen: (00:39)
For most people, the answer to both questions is a big no and that's okay. Right Ted?

Ted: (00:44)
Yeah, that's okay. We want to give you a quick overview of city council, whether you plan on attending or not.

Jen: (00:50)
There are several ways to stay informed and in the loop and we have city council president Richard's Skorman with us today to explain about some of those and just kind of in general what city council does. Richard, thanks for being here.

Richard: (01:02)
Yes, happy To be here.

Jen: (01:03)
and we're excited to talk with you as you have been in the community for many years about how you sort of, um, became involved in this city to begin with and how, um, you adopted this city as your own and really, you know, Rose up and became a city council member and then S and then city council president. Tell us about your story.

Richard: (01:23)
Well, I came here in 1970 and I, uh, worked in a bookstore when I went to Colorado college. They went out of business. I ended up buying their books and then I opened up my own little bookstore and the rest is history. I a poor Richard's a little Richardson. Rico's with my wife Patricia, and uh, been on Tejon street in business for 45 years.

Jen: (01:45)
Oh, that's awesome. Well, I mean, you could have stopped there and just been a local business owner. So what made you, you know, take that next step?

Richard: (01:52)
I was very passionate, uh, about many issues in the city, especially a downtown as a downtown businessman. And then I also fell in love with the outdoor life here. So I came, uh, and just realized from, I came from Akron, Ohio, a place that was Drury and, and polluted and uh, thought I landed in paradise. I helped a lot to pass the tops initiative, trails, open space and parks initiative that we, we tax ourselves of 10th of a cent to protect land and to build trails and parks and was able to help save some big open space areas like Stratton, open-space, Cheyenne mountain state park, red rock Canyon. And that's really how I got involved in politics. I started at park board and then got elected to council.

Ted: (02:35)
Well and then uh, you, you came back to council, cause talk about the, the differences between, you served in the early two thousands and I always like to show people when I take them on the tour, I say a, so this is the council president's office and then here's the picture of them now and then here's the picture of them now going on almost 20 years ago when you first serve. Um, so talk about why you serve then. It sounds like because of, uh, some parks issues and then you came back because of a Save Cheyenne and, and some other, uh, uh, of your personal endeavors that you did. But what gave you that burning desire to get back into council?

Richard: (03:10)
Well, eh, I actually really enjoyed it. It's funny, I tell people I have a master's degree in city council as I addressed. I, uh, really got to enjoy it. Local government is not partisan and it's really about a prac pragmatic, uh, things that you do for the citizens. You, you deliver services, you help keep them safe, you protect land. That's one part of it. But you're really, uh, opening doors and, uh, making a difference in their daily lives. And, uh, I always joke and say potholes aren't Democrat or Republican. They're just puddles when they need to get fixed. And I enjoy that. I'm a small businessman and I enjoy helping people and I enjoy fixing things.

Ted: (03:50)
Well, I think that is the interesting thing of city council and I'm your communications specialist. So, uh, obviously I work closely with you guys, but I'm trying to explain that to people. Sometimes we'll get some comments about, Oh, you guys are leaning this way or that way. Well, there's no real leaning when it just comes to local government and what's best for the city. Um, I also want people to understand though, a quick question cause we're going to kind of do kind of a council one-on-one, uh, for people out there that think that you guys are so highly paid. Tell people how much you are paid.

Richard: (04:21)
Well, we're paid a $500 a month stipend, $6,250 a year. Whoo. So we're, we're not doing it for the money.

Jen: (04:28)
No, that's for sure.

Richard: (04:29)
Although I would like to see more pay, not, not necessarily for myself but for future councils because if we paid enough we could have more young people and more people that represented the community in different ways. And right now it's tends to be more retired people. I am not retired, but I have a lots of people helping us run our businesses. My wife is working harder these days. But really the, uh, two thirds of us are retired on city council.

Jen: (04:55)
Can you explain a little bit about what the role of city council is. I think sometimes people get confused about what is the mayor's role versus what is city council's role. So kind of what is that legislative outlook and, and um, um, what, what is your job as city council?

Richard: (05:10)
Well, we, we basically are the Congress and the mayor is the president, uh, of the city. The mayor runs the day to day operations of the city and he's the executive or she, and they, uh, they basically, uh, have that control. The, the council doesn't get involved in how the police department is run or what, what they're doing in the streets. That day. We, we have, uh, an oversight responsibility when it comes to budgets. And then we handle all the codes and ordinances. We are the entity that puts everything on the ballot. And then we are the land use, uh, decision makers. So anything that has to do with rezoning or building or you know, construction, uh, it all comes to council and we have the ability to say yes, no, or people can appeal to council. And then we are also the board for the utilities. So a, all four of our utilities were one of the largest four tiered utilities in the country. People don't realize that that's owned by the rate payers. Most of them are investor owned utilities has a almost a billion dollar budget. Uh, we have probably a couple hundred thousand customers. We have 2000 employees and we make all the final decisions about the utilities. And so it's a, it's a lot of responsibility.

Ted: (06:28)
And what are those four tiers of the, the utilities for people that don't know?

Richard: (06:31)
Well, there's a water, wastewater, electric and gas and uh, and we provide them not only to every citizen in Colorado Springs, but we have some other areas like Manitou Springs and other partners out there that we provide utilities for. And, uh, it's, it's very complicated these days, especially with all the, uh, the, the water problems that they're having in the West. You know, one example I like to give is that a, we get 70% of our water from the Colorado river. And if you took the Colorado river and made it into the geography it serves, it would be the fifth largest economy in the world. So we have those senior water rights, but you hear on the news a lot, you know, everybody's fighting for Colorado river water. It's Southern California, it's Nevada, it's Arizona. And, uh, we are the ones who get to use it first, but we may not always have that privilege.

Ted: (07:23)
And that's a little tease into what we're going to talk about in the second part of this podcast is more about what you guys do for utilities. Going back to, um, city council side of things, what do you think the biggest misconception of what you guys do is by the public? I know you were listing out what you actually do, but what, what are some of the misconceptions that you see out there?

Richard: (07:45)
Well, people assume that, uh, we're in this for our careers or that we're aligning our pockets or that we have a lot of, uh, of, uh, special interests that lobby us and we're doing everything we can to get reelected. Well, for one thing, we're only allowed to four year term

Jen: (08:02)
and we know you're not lining your pockets and we're not lining their pockets and, and

Richard: (08:06)
it's a more than 40 hour a week job. And so it's not, we're doing this because we care about the community for the most part. And not saying everybody is perfect. And a, the, the other issue that people are, uh, misconceive about us is that we can affect the day to day operations of the city. So we can call up the police department and tell them X, Y, and Z. And we don't have that authority. We can certainly ask questions and they respond, but, but what we do is much more in a, in a higher level in terms of, uh, policy issues and, uh, and budget.

Jen: (08:41)
But that's also where the collaboration between city council and mayor comes in. Correct.

Richard: (08:45)
Exactly. And, uh, and, and we're getting along well. Uh, this was a government that really works. I think it's an example that you don't see in other levels of government, maybe States or federal government. Uh, we, we tend to work together cause we all have the same purpose. Uh, we want to do what's best for the citizens of Colorado Springs. And talk about, uh, how healthy is that for the city when, when the mayor and the council are able to work as closely as, as you guys are right now? Well, it's very healthy. You know, we have lively debates so we don't always agree. But, uh, what we try to do is not have the, uh, the debates be personal. We don't want to, uh, let the, you know, let the public know that, uh, that we're are arguing or upset or that there's somebody that's doing something nefarious. Uh, well let's get it all out on the table, talk about in public forums and then see gonna be respectful and, uh, and then let's, if we don't get our way, let's move on and keep doing good work.

Jen: (09:46)
And I think the critical part to that we want to emphasize during this podcast is how can people get involved? How can they, um, you know, from all the way from coming to a city council meeting and commenting on an issue to just knowing what the heck is going on. Um, and that can just be as simple as checking online, right, Ted?

Ted: (10:05)
Yes. Uh, that's kind of in my wheelhouse a little bit. Uh, if you go to our webpage, it's Colorado springs.gov/city-council, I believe, um, or just Google Colorado spring city council and you'll find it. But, um, there's ways to contact us on there, uh, either by email or by phone. Um, as well as you can come down and speak at citizen comment, which I'll let Richard explain a little bit more. Uh, uh, you guys call yourself the most accessible form of government, which, uh, which I think is very true. So if somebody wants to come speak to you guys and bring up an issue that they may be having in their neighborhood or, um, an issue that they have with, with a law that they think should be on the books, what should they do?

Richard: (10:46)
Well, they, uh, they should come to city council and, uh, our meetings are every second and fourth Tuesday. Uh, we also have a, you know, many other public meetings. We have town halls. There's lots of other opportunities to talk to us. But, but we're quite available. We, uh, we answer our own cell phones. We're there, uh, the talk to on the street. It's not like a, you know, we, we, we are, we are really accessible. It's the part of democracy I think that is the most successful is local government. And, uh, but they can come to citizens discussion, talk about anything they want that isn't on that day's agenda for three minutes. Uh, I let people sometimes even go over because they have a lot to say. And then we often can respond. We didn't realize that there was a problem with the crosswalk and the kids going to school or we didn't realize that a, this neighborhood is worried because they're, uh, having some flooding problems. And so we can really try to get some help and the answers for people. If it's an agenda item, again, we let you talk, it's three minutes a if you need to talk longer. If you have a land use issue and you don't want to see a building or like apartment house and you and your, we let you talk as long as you want to make sure that you can make your case and then we make our decision and uh, hopefully people at least feel like they were heard.

Ted: (12:04)
Well and that's where there's the good connection between you guys and mayor's office. A chief of staff, Jeff Green is, is there at the meetings so you guys can normally bounce off of him to get him to get his people to follow up. If there's something that's one of those day to day sort of things like you were talking about earlier, that's technically under the mayor side of things, right?

Richard: (12:23)
Yeah. And, and they really do. They really work well when counsel asks questions, they get us answers. Now it hasn't always been like that. Uh, there's been other, other mayors and councils maybe that disagree, but that this is really a government that I think is a good example of working together.

Jen: (12:39)
I wanted to mention too before we go to a quick break that, um, another, another thing that you can do on that website, Colorado springs.gov/council, um, is also, um, find out who your city council member is. I mean, that's important to know. I mean, maybe you didn't vote last time. Hopefully you will next time. But just to know who's representing you in your part of the city, um, who is the, who are the at-large city council members and just sort of educate yourself on who's representing us.

Ted: (13:06)
And you can also sign up for our newsletter that comes out every Friday prior to the meetings that has the agendas for the upcoming meeting to uh, to stay in touch with what's going on. But we're going to have a lot more with Richard Skorman and council president, uh, here in just a moment after the break.

Break: (13:22)
Thanks for listening to behind the Springs an inside look at your local government. If you're enjoying the show, please rate like and subscribe to this podcast. Did you do it yet? Come on. You know, you want to never miss an episode. Now back to Jen and Ted. Just kidding. Still me. Did you do it yet? Just click the little button, Wanna know a secret? Ted and Jen's lives depend on it. Grab your phone and just do it unless you're driving. Then wait, okay, last thing. Seriously. Just rate, like and subscribe.

Promo: (13:54)
You're loving this podcast, right? Of course you are. What are you waiting for or follow us on social media at city of cos and check out our website, Colorado springs.gov.

Jen: (14:08)
I'm glad that you we're giving that website over and over. It's a great resource if you want to find out about the city. But also if you want to find out about Colorado Springs city council,

Ted: (14:16)
I think we have the best commercials...

Jen: (14:18)
Ever.

Ted: (14:18)
Yeah. Out of any podcasts right now, we're giving Oprah a run for her money. I think that's right. Again, we're here with the city council president Richard's Skorman. And we're going to continue to talk just to touch about a city council matters and then we're going to segue into a more about what you guys do with utilities. But I think one of the biggest things with city council is you guys are working towards the future of Colorado Springs. The future has been for decades now. The growth of Colorado Springs, um, talk about making decisions for if it's developments, if it's banning Lewis ranch, whatever it may be, to, um, to do growth in the best way possible for this community.

Richard: (14:59)
It's a very tough issue because, uh, those of us who have been here since 1970, I remember when I moved here, everybody said the Citadel mall was going to be too far out of town. And, uh, and now it's the geographic center. And so it's not, not easy to think about how we've changed and it's not the same old Colorado Springs. A sleepy. I used to drive in Denver and I wouldn't see a car for five or 10 minutes and that a, that hasn't happened for a long time, but, but, but, but the problem is, uh, we have a, a a birth rate over death rate in Colorado Springs. That's about three to 5,000 people a year. And then you add the in migration of another 00020003000 and good economic times and we're, we're, yeah, we could grow by up to 10,000 people a year. And so it's how we grow. That's going to be really important. And it's not easy to think about, you know, Colorado Springs is the 18th largest city in the country geographic wise. We have about 200 square miles. So there's a lot of, uh, of, uh, opportunity to grow. But there's also a, a ways that we have to provide service to all that 200 square miles. We have a, we have a population that are heavy park users and then we invite the whole world here to visit. So we have about 20 million visitors who use our parks and use our roads and our infrastructure.

Jen: (16:21)
We want them here, but it's a, it's a balancing.

Ted: (16:23)
Are we loving it to death?

Richard: (16:24)
Yes, we are. And, and then there's all this new development that's happening in the County and the County, uh, doesn't have the water that we do. They don't have the fire protection, the police protection, the parks, the roads. It's not, not saying that, you know, they're not trying, but it's the city that really has the ability to put all that infrastructure together. Uh, ADA infrastructure for people with disabilities, stormwater infrastructure. We're the only ones with the fee. So right now, you know, they're talking about Falcon being 50,000 people. And so is that something that is good for the community? It really is right next door to us. Or do we as a city want to talk about, should we annex or should we, uh, require that they put in the infrastructure and pay for itself. So, uh, they have what they need in the future because 25 years from now they may ask us to bail them out because they don't have enough water.

Ted: (17:17)
And that, and that segues us right into our next, uh, uh, point of talk, which is that you guys are the utilities board here. Um, I think it was mayor who is talking about, uh, they once thought general Palmer was crazy for wanting to build a city here where there was no real water source. Um, obviously how well utilities has been doing for decades now. There is a pretty good water outlook before the region itself. Can you talk about what the water outlook for the region is and how important that's going to be for our city utilities?

Richard: (17:52)
Well, the, the uh, Colorado Springs, uh, if we had to depend on the Pike's peak watershed, uh, we would have about 20% of the water we need. We, we import 80% from, uh, up to 200 miles away and very high quality water. And we had people that were in my seat before that were very aggressive and people in the utilities who were able to get senior water rights. And, and that's a great thing. But, uh, in that process, uh, we also, uh, it, we have to spend all that money moving it here. So it's not, not quite cheap like it would be if you had a big, you know, Lake or river right by you. And then everything that we, uh, we bring into the city goes into fountain Creek. So fountain Creek is, uh, would've been dry about a third of the year in the old days, and now it's turned into kind of a river. And then everything that goes into the fountain Creek slash river goes into the Arkansas river and it goes through 180 what water treatment systems before it gets to the Gulf of Mexico. So you combine that with the fact that we have highly erodible soil and we have such elevation drop. We go start fountain Creek at 13,000 feet and it goes down to 4,000 feet. Uh, so, so we have a big flood potential. And, uh, and so that, that that's been a problem for us because we had all these water rights, but we couldn't get anybody to allow us to make, make these big dams. Nobody wants to dam up huge valleys anymore. If you drive up by bueno Vista, you see a sign saying, don't let Colorado Springs dam the Arkansas. So where are we? We're able to put water as in the Pueblo reservoir in order to do that, uh, we had to pump it up here, but we had to get pueblos permission and Pueblo County basically said, do you fix your flood problems? And it's not just a water, it's sedimentation. You, you see how the, the uh, the Arkansas river connects with fountain Creek. It's this big Brown fountain Creek going into a clear Arkansas river. We have that. And then the other issue that we have, it's really difficult here is we have one of the largest wild land urban interfaces in the country. It's about 25 miles from NORAD up to the air force Academy with national forests. 1.1 million acres. Lot of it's dry. A lot of it's built into, into, so we want to suppress fires. A lot of that, uh, has very little access in and out. And so people witness that with Waldo and black forrest. And so, you know, we have two geographic issues, both floods and fires that uh, are always always on, uh, on the front of everybody's mind. Council's is super aware of it. So as utilities.

Jen: (20:28)
And can you mention too, I know, uh, folks can get involved in utilities board and come and speak just as they do at city council, is that correct? Yeah, absolutely.

Richard: (20:37)
We meet usually the third Wednesday of every month. We have citizens discussion there and people are welcome to come and they're also welcome to speak at the agenda items. And then we do a lot of outreach through utilities because, you know, we know that this is really an important part of [inaudible] people's lives in Colorado Springs rates are a huge factor, but high quality water, making sure that the power is on. And what we've been able to do well is that we have some of the highest reliability in the country. We have a high bond rating, we have the, some of the best water quality in the country. I don't know if you travel, but you go places you can drill. You want to just grab, grab the bottle of water if you drink something out of the sink. And uh, and we, uh, we really do provide customer service. If you have a gas leak problem, we're out there lickety split because we know that this could be a danger. It's a great utility. It really, really is.

Jen: (21:30)
And it's interesting because I think if I may say so, I think what you're speaking about, the water issues and all the issues that city council tackles, I think are those issues that we take for granted. I mean our clean water and the zoning and the different ordinances that we, we do want to see in place. But again, I don't know how involves that. I really need to get, I would argue that most residents aren't super involved, but they want you to get it all right. But they don't really know what's happening. So I think incur, if I may encourage people to, to do, just get a little bit involved. Even if you're just reading the agenda or you know, watching the news about what happened at city council that night or whatever, familiarizing yourself with some of the big issues that are happening. I think that you might find that you're more interested than you think

Ted: (22:13)
or even watching the meetings, uh, work for Springs TV. Uh, you guys are the ones that broadcast the meetings. We broadcast it now on, at least for city council broadcasts that on city councils, Facebook page, um, there's a of ways, you know, 18 [inaudible] all utility board meetings,

Jen: (22:30)
right? And so there's lots of ways for you to stay informed even if you're not listening to every moment or you're not up on every single issue. Just getting involved in some way I think is really important.

Richard: (22:40)
Well, and also email out until we do respond and sometimes it takes us a little while cause we're in the, you know, an eight hour meeting or whatever. But a counselor really does care. And, uh, we will get back in touch with you if you, uh, reach out to us.

Ted: (22:54)
Well, that's also why we hired a constituent response specialists now too, who will also help answer people's questions because we have gotten an influx of people that are more curious about what going on.

Jen: (23:05)
another result of a growing city, which is great.

Ted: (23:08)
Is that, is that we have people to answer your questions. Um, one of the things that you were also saying Richard was, was how quickly a utilities gets out there to fix things, which I've seen our, our electricity randomly went out a couple of weeks ago and they were on it and a half an hour, 45 minutes. Um, talk about, you know, that's obviously great leadership is why that happens. But talk about the different positions that council or the utilities board, appoints that people might not know that you guys do this.

Richard: (23:37)
Well, we don't have many, uh, direct hires, but we have our council staff of which to those one. And we have a about other people that work for us in different ways, legislative analysts and people that are helping with a lot of our daily duties. A great staff over there. And then we appoint the, uh, city auditor.

Richard: (23:57)
So that's independent from the, the utilities and from the mayor's office, from the general city, because we want that person to have a, they're that outside pair of eyes. And then we also hire the CEO of utilities. So the chief executive officer, that's our only hire over there,

Ted: (24:17)
which you guys did last year.

Richard: (24:18)
We just did last year. We had a, a, a utility director that worked for us for, since I was on council before. We agree, hired him in 2005. And, and uh, he finally retired Jerry forte and we hired another great, uh, person to lead utilities Aram Benyamin and uh, but it was a big, yeah, it was a process. Very important decision. Yeah. But we, uh, we don't have a lot of direct hires. The mayor checks with us when he hires a police chief. He has us on the, uh, interview committees when he hires the city attorney. All that is partly a, our responsibility. He makes the final decision though.

Jen: (24:54)
And speaking of getting involved as I was, I'm urging people to do earlier, can you tell us about, you were saying that you even have some young folks who come to you and have ideas for city council.

Richard: (25:06)
So this is a great example. When I was on council before Mary Lou Makepeace, the mayor and we, uh, had several people that you wouldn't know today, but we had a group of middle school kids who came to us and said, did you know that in the drug stores and convenience stores that they put cigarettes down by the candy? And we said, well, geez, why, why did they do that? Well, they want the kids to think that cigarettes might be, you know, something to, to, uh, be interested in, or maybe they want them to shoplift. We don't know. And, and we, we were outraged and we actually passed a law that, uh, said they had to be up above a certain, uh, area above the counter. And we were one of the first cities to do that. And it was because of middle school kids. We did this.

Ted: (25:50)
Yeah. And those are some of the positive things that come out of the, the council meetings. I remember when I was a kid, I don't know if they still have them, but the candy that looked like cigarettes, I think it turned into gum or something like that. But uh, but there's also, you guys do proclamations, you guys do other recognitions for, um, for people that are doing great work in the city. Um, and then also, I know because of the two different times that you've been on council, you gotta have a good, funny story for us.

Richard: (26:16)
Okay. Well this, this is the one that I, uh, I use all the time and uh, people always seem to laugh, so let's see if your audience does. But I was passionate. I was the chair of the board of the Pikes peak area council of governments. And it was when Medicare plans were starting to, uh, come out for drug prescriptions and we had the area agency on aging. And I said, we need to be that provider. We needed to give everybody advice. And I made this passionate speech and at the end I said, we need to take the ball by the horns. There was complete silence and then everybody started laughing. And, and uh, that was when I said, I'm taking myself too seriously. Yeah.

Ted: (26:57)
Everybody can't be perfect, but I will say, I think that story just gave us the title for this episode of the podcast. Take the ball by the horns. That's great.

Jen: (27:07)
Well, I appreciate your passion and I think a lot of Colorado Springs residents should, and you're not the only one. I think our whole city council, um, regardless of their different decisions or viewpoints, they all have a passion for the city, which is wonderful.

Richard: (27:20)
They do it and we all respect each other. And that's a, that's a wonderful thing. You come to work every day, you're on buckle your seat belt. You go. I, I've liked the people I work with. We have great staff in the city, a lot of dedicated public officials. I'm not saying everybody is perfect and you know, there aren't people that uh, may take advantage now and then, but, but boy for the government's I've seen out there, this is one of the best in terms of people that care about the community and people that work hard for the citizens.

Jen: (27:49)
One we can be proud of for sure.

Ted: (27:50)
Yes. Well, and you know, I think, uh, uh, we're wrapping this one up, but going forward, I don't know Jen, I feel like maybe an episode where we sucker the mayor to come back and talk to us cause I know he loved it last time and then we bring Richard in and we just show that that good comradery between both sides. I think it could be a fun conversation. So maybe a little tease for an episode.

Jen: (28:11)
I would also like to mention that we would love to hear people's ideas. If there's, there are topics that you'd like to hear more about, please let us know. Colorado springs.gov/podcast you can find out more and you can email us or send us a message. We'd love it.

Ted: (28:24)
Yes. And we have gotten some emails and some requests. So, uh, we're, we're going to start getting to those, uh, very soon. But Richard, I want to say thank you very much again. Actually, you really lucked out. You're the only, uh, interview we that we've had on here that I haven't hit with of great sound effects.

Jen: (28:42)
Well, that's a nice one. Yeah.

Ted: (28:44)
So I'll, I'll hit you with the, a, with the applause for that. But normally I give out an acronym alert or a bureaucratic Babel. So you said you stayed away from both.

Richard: (28:53)
Well, I think that applause should be, uh, taking the ball by the horns.

Jen: (28:58)
that deserves actually.

Ted: (29:00)
the ball by the horn. [inaudible] so, well, thank you everybody for tuning into another episode of behind the Springs and, uh, can't wait to see you for the next episode.

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