What do our proudly conservative city/county/Colorado Springs School District 11 elected officials want? Mo’ money!
On the November ballot, Mayor John Suthers, with the support of a 6-3 supermajority of city council, will ask Colorado Springs voters to approve fee-based funding for a revamped stormwater enterprise.
The annual tab? About $17 million.
The county commissioners will ask permission to retain several million dollars in excess revenue that otherwise would have to be refunded to county residents. Some will be passed along to the Colorado Department of Transportation, earmarked for the long-deferred widening of Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock. Another ballot issue would permit the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority to help fund the widening. That total could be more than $10 million.
And D-11, whose aging schools serve many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, is again asking for a mill levy override, which would raise about $42 million annually.
There are good arguments against all, but better ones for. I’ll vote for all three. Yet the problems our elected officials are tackling are too large, too complex and too expensive to be easily solved.
Take floods. You can blame the extraordinary destruction of Katrina and Harvey upon human incompetence, but either storm would have wreaked havoc anyway. It’s not possible to prepare a city for 100-year events, as we found out during the Waldo Canyon fire. Sure, if we had paid to thin the Pike National Forest, forbidden construction in the urban interface and funded a permanent force of wildland firefighters, the fire might never have happened. But the annual cost of such prevention would likely have been more than $10 million, so we collectively shrugged our shoulders — and then came the Black Forest fire.
So will the stormwater fee protect us in the event of a major flood? The answer is simple: No.
Consider the Memorial Day flood of 1935. Heavy rains saturated the region in the three days leading up to Memorial Day. The then-undeveloped prairie lands to the north and northeast of Colorado Springs couldn’t absorb any more water when 17-20 inches of rain fell in a few hours. The water flowed into Monument Creek, carrying away every bridge, washing houses downstream for miles. Contemporary photos show a broad, raging river below the confluence of Monument and Fountain creeks. For a few hours, the river’s volume (as subsequently estimated) approached that of the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge.
An impermeable suburban landscape has replaced the prairie. A similar rainfall event next Memorial Day would have similar consequences.
But it still makes sense to have dedicated stormwater funding, thereby funding infrastructure that will mitigate most storm events, protect downstream communities and resolve litigation with Pueblo, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency.
D-11 is different. In Colorado, rich neighborhoods get good schools and poor neighborhoods get crappy schools. That’s just the way it works, and the only way to remedy it under current law is for residents of poor neighborhoods to step up and pay more than they can comfortably afford. I know it’s unfair and unjust, but that’s the world we live in. I live a couple of blocks from West Middle/Elementary School, and I’m acutely conscious of the need to renovate or replace that noble old building. It’s the beating heart of a big chunk of the Westside, and the key to the continuing rebirth of our once-decrepit neighborhood.
Next, why should we pay for widening I-25 in Douglas County? Isn’t that the state’s responsibility? And given that cost estimates for widening are in the hundreds of millions, wouldn’t it make more sense to use local funds for one-time projects of immediate community benefit?
Again, it’s unfair, but the only way to accelerate the widening project is to put up some dough. We may think that the I-25 bottleneck should be CDOT’s No. 1 priority, but folks in Greeley, Boulder, Fort Collins and Denver might disagree. And if you want to mitigate congestion, what about I-70?
The number of crucial transportation projects far outstrips available funding, so we’re back to living in the real world, where nobody rides for free.