City on the right track with stormwater

So here we are again, trying to figure out what to do about stormwater. We have, it appears, a $460 million problem that just won’t go away. And if the Colorado Springs City Council ignores it or fails to refer the issue to the voters this November, the problem will just get bigger.

At least that’s what Mayor John Suthers fervently believes. Since being elected two years ago, he’s been on a mission to clean the Augean Stables of our long-dysfunctional city. He first managed to persuade city voters to spend $50 million annually to fix the roads, followed up with $14 million in retained Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights refunds and now is trying for the trifecta: a 20-year stormwater fee that would raise about $17 million annually.

As written, the measure is simple and inexpensive. Residences pay a flat fee of $5 a month while commercial properties pay a base charge of $30 an acre. Council approved it by a 6-3 vote on Aug. 8, with Bill Murray, Andy Pico and Don Knight opposed.

On Aug. 22, the resolution to refer will get a second reading — unless the results of a private poll conducted earlier this week show that it’s unlikely to pass. Otherwise, Suthers and council may kick the can down the road and hope voters are more receptive in 2018.

As the mayor pointed out in brief remarks to council, the problem isn’t new. It dates to 1991, when city voters agreed to phase out a 0.5 percent capital improvement sales tax and also approved a sweeping tax limitation initiative.

Good Republican that he is, the mayor failed to mention the latter.

Both initiatives were written and brilliantly promoted by a tough-minded California transplant, Douglas Bruce. He’d failed twice with similar measures on the state ballot, but success in Colorado Springs may have boosted his credibility. In 1992, voters statewide approved TABOR.

By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, the loss of the half-cent sales tax and the various restrictions of TABOR and its local predecessor have cost the city dearly.

Despite greatly increased property values and the construction of tens of thousands of commercial, industrial and residential properties in the past 27 years, city property tax revenues are only fractionally above those of 1990 — $19.6 million versus $19.8 million. TABOR and our local mini-TABOR combined to reduce the city’s mill levy from 11 mills to 4.279 mills, for a cumulative revenue loss of around $400 million in 2017 dollars.

Otherwise we’ll be raiding the general fund and/or Utilities.

Ending the tax meant there was no specially designated fund for capital improvements, such as those associated with stormwater infrastructure.

The cost in 2017 dollars: as much as $400 million.

Had the voters rejected both initiatives, we wouldn’t have needed a road tax or a stormwater fee. Roads would have been well maintained, stormwater infrastructure would have been built and the recession nearly a decade ago wouldn’t have affected parks and streetlights.

I know all about bad financial decisions. Thanks to a few doozies, I’ve deferred maintenance on my decrepit Westside Victorian. One section of the 1899 stone wall that so picturesquely encircles the house has been tilting precariously for years, but I figured that fixing it could wait.

Alas, this week’s torrential rains further undermined the noble old structure, and it tumbled down. What might have cost a few hundred bucks five years ago will now set us back thousands. Can I raise that on GoFundMe? Oh well…

So I’m all for the mayor, Council President Richard Skorman and my fellow voters coming together to fix the stormwater mess, a quarter-century after the felonious Mr. Bruce led local voters down the primrose path.

We made a deal with Pueblo to invest $460 million in stormwater infrastructure during the next 20 years, thereby protecting our $830 million investment in the Southern Delivery System. We need the kind of fee-based stormwater funding every sizable city in America uses, or otherwise we’ll be raiding the general fund and/or Utilities to comply with the agreement for decades. And no, we can’t wriggle out of the deal, unless we want to write off SDS.

If we’re dumb enough to reject this measure, we deserve what we get (or don’t get). You get what you pay for — and, sometimes, the wall comes tumbling down.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Richard D Wehner

    August 11, 2017 at 2:55 pm

    “On Aug. 22, the resolution to refer will get a second reading — unless the results of a private poll conducted earlier this week show that it’s unlikely to pass. Otherwise, Suthers and council may kick the can down the road and hope voters are more receptive in 2018.”

    Is ‘Timing, Timing, Timing’ as important on going to the voters with a tax or fee ballot question as important as ‘Location, Location, Location is to real estate sales success?

    If funding to pay for storm water project construction and maintenance is critical – what would be the best time to place the measure before the voters? What does the polling to date indicate?


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