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El Paso County calls on Gov. Polis to sign bill aimed at stopping illicit spas

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. (KRDO) -- One El Paso County Commissioner is calling on Governor Jared Polis to sign a bill that would provide counties with the tools to help stop illicit spas and human trafficking in their communities.

Just last week, Colorado Springs City Council members unanimously voted to pass a massage business license ordinance. The council hopes the new ordinance will block out the more than 30 confirmed illegal businesses that are currently selling sex for money in the city. The illicit spas with ties to human trafficking were first exposed by 13 Investigates in 2019.

Colorado Springs' new massage business license ordinance mirrors a similar ordinance passed in 2018 by the City of Aurora. Within the last few years, Aurora, Wheat Ridge, and Commerce City have all adopted local ordinances aimed at getting illicit massage businesses out of their communities.

According to the new Colorado Springs ordinance, it will be unlawful for a massage parlor to operate within the City of Colorado Springs without a valid massage business license for each premise starting September 1, 2022. Massage licenses must be renewed yearly, and the annual fee is currently set at $110.

Since Colorado Springs is a home-ruled municipality, they were able to pass an ordinance on their own. However, El Paso is a statutory county and is not permitted to pass a similar ordinance without additional legislation.

El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf tells 13 Investigates the county has been working on passing a similar law for several years. He says as soon as Gov. Polis signs HB22-1300, titled Local Enforcement to Prevent Human Trafficking, they will be able to act.

"Once it is signed we are going to want to make sure we put these protections in for our citizens," VanderWerf told 13 Investigates. "Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery and we fight that every chance we get."

The bill would allow county commissioners across the state to adopt local resolutions or ordinances to establish massage business license requirements to regulate massage facilities in order to deter illicit massage businesses and prevent human trafficking, just like Colorado Springs.

"That's why this bill is so helpful to us with what the city of Colorado Springs is doing," VanderWerf said. "We will be able to do this together as a partner."  

Like the ordinance in Aurora, the newly approved ordinance in Colorado Springs allows the city to inspect and license massage businesses, prohibits employees from living inside the spas, and doesn't allow them to advertise for sexual services.

The city of Aurora was able to shut down all of its illegitimate massage businesses within a year after passing the ordinance.

“(Illicit spas) will not obtain the license which enables us to write a citation based on that. Currently, we have to spend hundreds of hours,” said Scott Whittington with the Colorado Springs Police Department's Metro Vice Unit.

However, in 2019,  our Denver news partner discovered that Aurora’s legislation didn’t eliminate the problem — it simply placed the burden elsewhere. While Aurora legislation might've shut down 19 illicit spas within the city, 9News found the spas just reopened next door in Denver’s city limits where the rules restricting illegal activity are laxer.

“Denver doesn’t have a lot of regulation for massage parlors,” said Trevor Vaughn, with Aurora’s Tax and Licensing division told 13 Investigates back in 2019. “A big part of Denver’s issue is there’s not a pre-screening of the business before they get a license. Additionally, when they see things that are signs of illicit massage businesses they don’t violate Denver’s ordinance.”

VanderWerf says he is definitely concerned that illegal businesses could pick up shop and move out into the county. That's why the El Paso County commissioner says the time for Gov. Polis to sign the bill is now.

13 Investigates reached out to Gov. Polis's office for comment and asked when or if the Colorado Governor will sign the bill. We currently waiting on a response.

13 Investigates also asked Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar, Pueblo County Commissioner Garrison Ortiz, and the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office, if they are at all concerned about a similar trend taking place in their communities.

The only one to respond on the record to our request for comment so far is the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office. A spokesperson said their detectives assigned to illicit spas are aware of the new ordinance in Colorado Springs and are monitoring the situation.

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