Voters in the Pikes Peak region opened their wallets in 2017 by virtue of approving ballot measures to fund a stormwater fee and spiraling needs in Colorado Springs School District 11. Those Election Day decisions were out of the norm for a traditionally conservative electorate, but followed a 2015 tax approved to fix area roads.
El Paso County voters also agreed to let the county keep $14.6 million in excess tax revenue, primarily to help widen Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock.
The D-11 vote will bring $42 million to the city’s largest school district. It was the first tax election victory for D-11 since 2000.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers called the passage of those ballot issues “monumental.”
Suthers stumped hard for 2A, the stormwater issue, not only because it created a special fund to deal with infrastructure issues related to drainage for the next 20 years, but also to free up about $17 million from the city’s annual budget which otherwise would’ve been committed to stormwater.
With that extra money in the city’s general fund, Suthers and the Colorado Springs City Council agreed on a revised budget that will improve public safety by adding 20 police officers and 10 fire personnel. More money was then directed to update the city’s fleet, to help with city salaries (including police officers) and to improve parks maintenance.
What did that stormwater vote cost area citizens? Homeowners must pay $5 a month, and non-residential property owners $30 an acre per month, to fund the city’s stormwater obligations.
“I hate to use a pun, but it was a watershed moment,” Suthers said.
A lawsuit had been brought against the city by the Environmental Protection Agency, Pueblo County and the Department of Public Health and Environment over the city’s failure to live up to its stormwater responsibilities.
“We finally persuaded the voters this was a critical legal issue,” Suthers said.
He couldn’t convince all city councilors, although a 6-3 vote put the issue on the Nov. 7 ballot.
Andy Pico and Don Knight, both conservative councilors, opposed 2A.
“They put it on the ballot several years ago and I thought they shouldn’t ask again unless a court ordered it,” Pico said. “I think we should fund [stormwater] out of the general fund.”
“I thought the money was not needed,” he said, “but the people have spoken and are willing to pay that [fee].”
Public safety benefits
Suthers noted that police staffing had fallen behind.
“Public safety is our No. 1 priority and always will be,” he said. “In my opinion, we’re at least 120 officers down from where we should be. This gives us a pathway over the next five years to beef up the police department and help the fire department, which has been accruing a lot of overtime to keep up with its staffing needs.”
Suthers said investments in fleet replacement over the next four years should drop the average age of vehicles from 16 years to 12.
Council President Richard Skorman also applauded voters for passing 2A.
“This frees up the general fund, and that allows us to help with police and fire response times,” he said. “Our parks system has been ignored for a decade. This allows us to be a more responsive city government where we can also address the homeless and affordable housing.”
Councilor Tom Strand said other cities he’s lived in during a 30-year stint in the Air Force had stormwater fees.
“I’ve been back here since 2004, and we’ve been fortunate the last couple of years that there hasn’t been a more serious catastrophe due to storm and drainage problems,” Strand said.
Although 2C, the tax that raises about $50 million annually through 2020 to fix area roads and sidewalks, passed two years earlier, Suthers said it had an impact on 2A.
“I don’t think we would’ve won 2A if voters hadn’t seen the improvements we got from 2C,” he said. “Our polling said the level of confidence in city government was high because of improvements seen from 2C.”
Skorman said the Springs was “one of the worst places in the country” for roads prior to 2C improvements and that the tax “has been a driver for getting businesses to relocate here.”
Nearly 500 lane miles were paved around town in 2016-17 due to 2C, and Suthers noted that several heavily traveled arterial roads — such as Pikes Peak Avenue, from downtown to North Circle Drive — will be paved in 2018.
“The bottom line,” Suthers said, “is that 2018 is a year in which we’re going to implement effectively, and cost effectively, both 2A and 2C.”
Paying for education
D-11 was in dire need of additional funding, which will increase salaries for teachers and staff, purchase new technology for students and spruce up old buildings.
“Many of those buildings are from the 1950 and ’60s,” said Strand, an at-large councilor who served on the D-11 school board from 2007-11. “The district has [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] systems and roofs that badly need repair. Plus, it’s hard to hire and then retain teachers and staff because of low salaries. I’m a big supporter, and the district badly needed this.”
Councilor Yolanda Avila, whose district partly falls in D-11, said test scores have been affected by a lack of money for items such as laptops that other school districts are getting.
“There’s a down spiral and we’re losing good teachers,” she said. “Maybe this will change that.”
The April election brought a change in the makeup of City Council — it leans decidedly more to the left than recent groups, thanks to the additions of Skorman and Avila, and the more moderate David Geislinger — and that will affect other issues going forward.
“Council has changed a lot. It’s a more liberal council,” Knight said. “Even though we’re nonpartisan, I was more on the majority side of council before and now I’m more on the minority. The biggest thing to change is the closure of [the Martin Drake Power Plant]. In 2015, we set that at 2035 but now council members want to make it 2025. They’re looking at it as a pollutant, and I don’t. It passes all EPA standards. They don’t worry about [utility] rates and I do. This would not have been an issue with the previous council.
“And we’ve got recreational marijuana looming out there, and whether we put it on the ballot. Last April’s council election is setting the themes for April 2019 elections with three seats [Strand, Merv Bennett and Bill Murray] on the ballot.”