City stormwater fee: Idea whose time has come

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Next month, businesses and residents of Colorado Springs will see an additional fee on their utility bills: the long-awaited — and much-needed — stormwater fee.

Voters approved the monthly fee during the last round of municipal elections, and the city now has the infrastructure in place to start collecting the money.

The fee will allow the city to develop a comprehensive drainage program, ease flooding from the Waldo Canyon burn scar, appease our neighbors to the south and help end a lawsuit brought by the Environmental Protection Agency, Pueblo County and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — all while freeing up general-fund dollars for police, fire and other city needs.

And yes, it’s more money from businesses. But it’s a vital contribution to the city’s economic development and its future prosperity. It’s a way to take responsibility for problems left to fester for too long, issues that created bad blood with Pueblo and failed to meet federal water standards.

Until now, Colorado Springs was one of the few major cities without a dedicated stormwater fee, and given the city’s population boom, it was a problem that needed to be addressed.

On July 1, the fee goes into effect. Businesses will pay based on the amount of developed space on their properties; homeowners will pay a flat $5 fee. Analysts say the new fee is expected to bring between $16 million and $17 million to city coffers each year to address the backlog of stormwater projects.

The general fund money currently used for drainage projects will go to hire 20 additional police officers for the Colorado Springs force, eight firefighters and two fire inspection officials. During the next five years, the city plans to add between 100 and 120 new firefighters and police officers, enough to match the needs of a rapidly growing population.

Rumors are that the city is close to a settlement on the lawsuit, thanks to the stormwater fee and swift action to divert general fund money to the project backlog. If that happens, it’s great news for the city — and for its future growth.

The worry: The money from fees won’t be enough.

While the city’s voters should be commended for taking action, some fear that officials will raise the fee in five years or so as costs of construction materials continue to rise, thanks to tariffs and looming trade wars. Materials and labor costs have grown exponentially in recent years, the result of both policy and a quickly expanding economy.

City planning officials will have to move cautiously and make judicious decisions with taxpayer monies to stretch the revenue far enough to make a real difference and to stop the federal case wending its way through the courts.

And after passing tax increases for roads and a fee for stormwater, it will limit the number of times city leaders can ask for money for other issues: for parks and recreation, for economic development, for tourism projects. This city already has one of the state’s highest sales tax rates (let’s hope Denver isn’t successful in passing a statewide tax for transportation), so further increases could harm the city’s standing as a great place to do business.

In the short term, the stormwater fee is an immediate fix to a long-standing problem. We’re cautiously optimistic that the results will be worth the cost.  n CSBJ