Fees allow city to tackle stormwater projects

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Nonresidential property owners will start receiving a new monthly bill next month from the city of Colorado Springs.

The city will begin collecting stormwater fees July 1 that, for commercial, industrial, municipal and federal properties, will amount to $30 per acre per month. For some property owners, the cost will be substantial.

But Mayor John Suthers says it will be worth it.

“A vibrant economy requires the infrastructure to support it, and people want to be assured that they live in a city that is safe, offers quality city services and is well maintained,” Suthers said at a news conference Tuesday. “Dedicated funding for stormwater will only bolster our thriving economy over the long run.”

The city has been spending about $13 million a year on stormwater projects from its general fund. That money has been unavailable for funding other city services.

Voters in November 2017 approved ballot question 2A, authorizing the city to collect stormwater fees. The fees, which will sunset July 1, 2038, are expected to generate $16 million to $17 million a year. Once the stormwater fee kicks in, the city can hire 20 more police officers, eight firefighters and two fire inspectors.

“These positions are part of a larger plan to add 120 police officers to the force incrementally over the next five years,” Suthers said.

The $30-per-acre monthly fee for nonresidential parcels will be levied on any land that is improved or developed. For nonresidential parcels larger than 5 acres, undeveloped or unimproved land will be exempt.

“For example, the city of Colorado Springs will pay the stormwater fee — a couple hundred thousand dollars — but we’re able to deduct golf courses and parks and things like that,” Suthers said. “Some of our major employers will have that advantage.”

Suthers said Richard Mulledy, the city’s Water Resources Engineering Division and Stormwater Enterprise manager, has been talking with large property owners.

“When he shows them the … surfaces that we’re taking out, they see it’s a pretty common-sensible approach,” Suthers said. “It will not hit them any harder than if they were in any other city in the United States. In fact, the system that we have decided on … will be a lot less bureaucratic, and they will actually be paying smaller fees than they did under the previous stormwater fee. So we feel very good about that.”

The city adopted a stormwater enterprise fee in 2007, but it was ended in 2009 after voters approved a ballot issue that required the city to phase out enterprise payments.

“Every major city in America has a stormwater fee,” Suthers said. “We just have kind of a unique history not to have had one over the last several years. If you look around the country, our rates are certainly reasonable.”

Residential property owners will pay a flat $5 monthly fee, a charge that will appear on their Colorado Springs Utilities bill.

The fees apply only to properties within the Colorado Springs city limits.

Colorado Springs has an extensive network of stormwater infrastructure, much of it built more than 50 years ago. Lack of funding has prevented many necessary improvements.

Maintenance is a huge task. The stormwater system includes about 270 miles of open channels and 500 miles of underground stormwater pipes, Mulledy said.

“We have tens of thousands of manholes and inlets that have to be cleaned out annually,” he said. “We also have about 120 regional stormwater basins that operate as flood control, that have to have sediment cleaned out on a regular basis. It’s a very large network of infrastructure” that has to be maintained.

Having a dedicated and reliable funding source will enable the city to complete several large stormwater capital projects, including stabilization of the Sand Creek channel south of Platte Avenue. The $5 million project will protect public and private property from flooding, reduce erosion and prevent sediment from being carried downstream into Fountain Creek.

An added benefit, Suthers said, is the opportunity to build a multi-user trail linking the east part of town to downtown and the south and west sides of the city.

An even larger project is the $30 million Camp Creek drainage improvement project. Much of the Camp Creek watershed burned during the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire, resulting in increased runoff and more water flowing into the creek.

The project includes naturalistic channel stabilization structures and re-vegetation along portions of Camp Creek through Garden of the Gods Park and Rock Ledge Ranch; a detention pond at the north end of the park; and replacement of the unsightly and deteriorating 31st Street ditch with a wider channel that will be landscaped and lined with boulders.

The channel stabilization has been completed, but funding is still being sought for the ditch improvements.

Besides these major projects, the city will be working on 40 to 50 smaller projects that are community-local.

“These projects are not very newsworthy, but if your business is at the bottom of a basin, every time it rains, it floods your storefront,” Mulledy said.

The Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC led the campaign to pass Ballot Question 2A last November.

“One of the things most important to our local businesses is to have a reliable infrastructure,” said Rachel Beck, Chamber and EDC vice president of government affairs. “Our stormwater infrastructure had been badly neglected for decades.”

Beck said the Chamber polled its members before taking a position on the stormwater issue.

“They felt this was an investment that was absolutely necessary to make,” she said. Beck said infrastructure investments are key to a vital local economy.

“What we have seen from residents is a commitment to invest in infrastructure locally,” she said. “We passed (ballot measure) 2C to catch up on road maintenance, and we’ve seen investments in other parts of the transportation system,” including funding for Interstate 25 improvements.

“We think that the community will see some pretty noticeable benefits over the course of 20 years, but what we did not expect was immediate benefits,” Beck said. “FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) has already lowered Colorado Springs’ flood rating, and property owners will save 5 percent on flood insurance. FEMA cites improvements in our infrastructure as a reason for doing that.

“Certainly (the stormwater fee) is an additional cost, and we are always cognizant of the costs businesses have to bear,” she said. “Overall, we’re really pleased to see the willingness to support infrastructure so we can support a viable community.” n CSBJ