Larry Small, the articulate former Colorado Springs vice mayor, defines as well as anyone the problem of asking voters to pass judgment on paying for stormwater projects.
“Stormwater funding is always a hard thing to sell,” Small said. “And if it fails, it’s not the kind of thing that you can bring right back to the voters. You’d have to wait five or six years before trying again.”
Ballot proposals that involve raising taxes or incurring new debt have always been a hard sell in staunchly conservative Colorado Springs and El Paso County. Successful measures seem to share these characteristics:
• The measure addresses obvious community needs;
• The measure has strong, often unanimous support from elected officials;
• The bond issue/tax proposal is extremely specific, including proposed projects, costs, and timetables;
• Tax increases have sunset provisions, typically expiring within 12 years;
• An apolitical, nonpartisan group of city leaders coalesces around the measure; and
• Supporters are able to mount a credible campaign to explain the issue and overcome voter skepticism.
“The studies (that the Task Force has commissioned) show that we need to raise $46-54 million annually to deal with the problem.”
– Robin Roberts
In the past two decades, Colorado Springs voters have approved the Trails and Open Space tax (TOPS), Springs Community Improvement Program bonds (SCIP) and the Public Safety Sales Tax. County voters have OK’d sales tax increases to fund the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority and Sheriff’s Department. Both PPRTA and TOPS taxes were extended prior to expiration.
Every Front Range city except Colorado Springs has a dedicated funding mechanism to address stormwater funding.
The omission is peculiar, especially since the city has often coped with similarly thorny problems.
A tangled history
As General Palmer’s little town grew from a few shacks clustered on the treeless prairie to a city of 430,000 residents, city leaders figured out how to provide public safety services, build and maintain roads, bridges, and parks, and provide dozens of other vital city services. No specific funding was provided for stormwater or flood control, although major floods had periodically ravaged the community.
The great Memorial Day flood of 1935 transformed Monument and Fountain Creeks into raging rivers, destroying Monument Valley Park, carrying away all but one of the bridges over the two creeks and damaging or destroying hundreds of homes. Scores of residents lost their lives, including many homeless people camping along the creeks.
Monument Valley Park was never fully restored. The federally funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) channelized Monument Creek by creating today’s rock-walled stream course. Subsequent floods in 1965, 1999 and 2013 were less catastrophic, but still damaging.
In the past 30 years, the city government has twice attempted to create a stormwater authority. City Council approved a half-cent capital improvements tax in 1985, eliminated six years afterward by a Douglas Bruce-authored initiative. In 2005, Council tried again, creating a stand-alone, fee-supported Stormwater Enterprise. The fee amount for each property was determined by impermeable surface area, including roofs, sidewalks, driveways and parking areas.
SDS and stormwater
Council’s decision was driven not only by the deteriorated condition of the city’s stormwater infrastructure, but also by concerns over future water supplies.
As planning for the proposed Southern Delivery System took shape during the early years of the century, it became clear that Colorado Springs wouldn’t be able to build it without a defined source of stormwater funding.
SDS would convey water via pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs. Under state law, Pueblo County commissioners could block the project by denying a construction permit. Disturbed by frequent flooding and multiple sewage spills into Fountain Creek, Pueblo commissioners made it clear that the city had to deal with stormwater issues before going forward with SDS.
Enter the irrepressible Douglas Bruce. Calling the stormwater fee a “rainwater tax,” Bruce accused City Council of imposing a de facto property tax on city residents. City voters agreed, jettisoning the tax by a wide margin. Council dissolved the Stormwater Enterprise in 2009.
Task force moves forward
On Nov. 4, voters in Colorado Springs and El Paso County likely will be given the opportunity to create a new stormwater authority patterned after the PPRTA.
Like its ill-fated predecessor, it will collect fees based on impermeable surface from property owners. The Stormwater Enterprise charged property owners $0.00264 per square foot monthly, which was designed to raise about $7.52 a month from the average residential customer. The proposed new body will probably set higher fees, reportedly in the range of $8-12.
“We’re backing into the figure,” said Pikes Peak National Bank President Robin Roberts, who has been a member of the citizen-driven Stormwater Task Force since its inception. “The studies (that the Task Force has commissioned) show that we need to raise $46-54 million annually to deal with the problem.”
The fee would be in place for 20 to 30 years.
An independent analysis of regional stormwater needs by CH2MHill presented in February detailed a $724 million backlog, including $192 million in high-priority projects. Given the perceived urgency of many of the projects, Roberts and other task force members don’t want delay.
“It’s a tight window,” acknowledged Roberts, “but we need to move forward. We’re going to have flooding this summer, and we have to have a solution in place as soon as possible.”
Thanks to last year’s changes in election laws, the task force has only four months to prepare the ballot issue. It’s a complex task, requiring multiple intergovernmental agreements (IGAs) between all incorporated cities in El Paso County, some of which already have stormwater fees in place. In addition, the task force will have to determine the exact structure of the authority, including the composition of its board.
The fine print
That may be a major sticking point. Though about 75 percent of the authority’s revenue will come from properties within Colorado Springs, city control over the tax dollars will be limited.
According to the task force’s website,
• An intergovernmental agreement between participating entities, including El Paso County and the City of Colorado Springs, would contain the details of the regional relationship.
• The authority board would have an elected official representative from each participating entity, and possibly a technical representative and a citizen representative; a majority of the vote should go to Colorado Springs; a super majority should be required for budget votes and in determining which projects are “regional” in nature.
The PPRTA has functioned well with such a structure, but signs of strain have become evident during the past several weeks. Deep divisions between the mayor and City Council have drawn the PPRTA into city politics.
City Councilors serve as the city’s representatives on the PPRTA board. The mayor has no role in the appointments, and this has created even more friction between the legislative and executive branches of city government.
The PPRTA board recently sent a formal letter of protest to Bach, charging the city with failing to adhere to “maintenance of effort” provisions regarding transit funding. All three City Council members on the PPRTA board signed the letter. Similarly, the PPRTA recently issued a press release claiming that $4.4 million in road maintenance funding would be available to the city from carryover PPRTA funds, making Mayor Bach’s recent request for emergency funding for pothole repair unnecessary.
Mayor Bach’s opposition to a “regional” solution may also be affected by the proposal’s still-undefined structure. With so much city tax revenue controlled by independent regional authorities, the city administration wouldn’t have much to administer. The city would effectively surrender some of its power of the purse to shifting coalitions of elected officials from various jurisdictions.
The mayor’s plan is simple. He’s OK with a regional stormwater authority, but not one supported by a regional tax. Each participant would bring its own funding to the table. City voters would be asked to authorize a $175 million bond issue to fund stormwater and other crucially needed infrastructure during the next five years. The city would spend $35 million annually, including $20 million on stormwater, $11.5 million on roads and bridges and $2.5 million on public safety infrastructure. At its sole discretion, the city could elect whether to participate in regional projects.
“My hope is that the community will see big results,” said Bach, “and then if our cashflows do not scale up sufficiently over three or four years, then support an Oklahoma City-type MAPS plan which would enable us to overcome our tremendous backlog and achieve a truly well-maintained city.”
“The mayor is free to do what he wants,” she said, “but this has been an open, transparent and public process. We’ve found from the meetings and from polling that people understand the problem, and want a sustained, long-term regional solution.”