In 2017 we’ll celebrate the 20th anniversary of TOPS, the city’s trails, open space and parks program.
By any measure, it’s been an amazing success. Absent the 1/10th of a cent TOPS tax enacted in 1997, this would be a very different city.
Red Rock Canyon Open Space wouldn’t be an amazing 700-acre public park, but a private and/or commercial development. Think Red Rocks: a gated community. Stratton Open Space, Bluestem Prairie, Ute Valley Park, Blodgett Peak Open Space, Corral Bluffs — many of them would now be wholly or partially in private hands.
The now-ancient warriors who conceived, created and twice fought to pass TOPS are still around, and still fighting for Truth, Justice and the American Way. But instead of celebrating new acquisitions, Lee Milner and Richard Skorman are struggling mightily to keep Strawberry Fields in city ownership and nullify the Colorado Springs City Council’s decision to go ahead with the Broadmoor land swap.
It’s a different era. We can barely maintain the parks we have, let alone acquire more. Funding is scarce, and the city sales tax rate is already one of the highest in Colorado. As for raising property taxes, forget it! Polls show that an overwhelming majority of city voters would reject any kind of city property tax increase.
Ours seems to be an era of sour defeatism, a time when the only way to enlarge and stabilize the parks system is through a complex land exchange with The Broadmoor. It’s a time when an historic and beautiful ranch a few miles south of town may be turned into a vast gravel pit that will supply aggregate to the region for the next half-century.
It’s not like 1997, when forward-looking citizens followed the shining example of Gen. William Palmer and created a powerful legacy for future generations … or is it?
Colorado Springs in the early 1990s was just as contentious and apparently ungovernable as it was in 2013 when a new city council majority led by Keith King, Joel Miller and Don Knight took office and went to war with Mayor Steve Bach.
In 1991, Douglas Bruce persuaded Colorado Springs voters to approve two initiated measures. One was the first iteration of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a breathtakingly restrictive charter amendment that both forbade council to raise taxes without voter approval and required council to refund “excess” tax revenue to residents. The other ballot issue phased out a half-cent capital improvement tax that council had approved a few years earlier.
In the same election, voters re-elected Mayor Bob Isaac and council incumbent Randy Purvis, as well as three newcomers — Lisa Are, Cheryl Gillaspie and yours truly. All five of us opposed Bruce’s initiatives, and none of us (including Mayor Bob!) had any idea what to do about it. So we floundered along, and were pleasantly surprised when the city’s stagnant economy rebounded in the next couple of years.
It occurred to me that we could fund a modest city open-space program by diverting a couple of hundred thousand bucks annually from the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax. That’d be good for tourism, right?
Wrong! My usually progressive colleagues well understood that the politically powerful recipients of those tax dollars, like the Convention & Visitors Bureau, wouldn’t sit still for such a brazen raid. Council wouldn’t fund open space, so that was that.
But John Weiss, the brash young publisher of the city’s fledgling alternative newsweekly, the Colorado Springs Independent (and now owner of the CSBJ) had another idea. Why not a dedicated open space tax? A few of us began meeting after work and the TOPS plan took shape.
A year later, council referred the tax proposal to the voters. Predictably, it failed by a 53-47 margin.
That didn’t faze Skorman, Milner, Randy Case and others who had worked to support the measure. Maybe, they speculated, a second attempt could succeed — especially one initiated by TOPS advocates, not referred by council. The need was obvious and urgent, and we’d only need a four-point swing.
They were right. In 1997, the measure passed by a 53-47 margin, despite nine Gazette editorials opposing it. The feisty folks at the Independent had given the Gazette a good butt-kicking, and an “era of good feelings” began under new mayor Mary Lou Makepeace.
Can something similar happen now with a potential initiative to stabilize park funding with a dedicated property tax? Richard, Lee, Randy, John — are you ready for another battle?
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.”
— William Shakespeare, Henry V.