Parks advocates face quandary with ballot measure

September 12, 2010
photo - A couple walks their dog near Prospect Lake in Memorial Park in Colorado Springs this summer. Photo by Anthony Souffle, The Gazette Photo by ANTHONY SOUFFLE, THE GAZETTE
A couple walks their dog near Prospect Lake in Memorial Park in Colorado Springs this summer. Photo by Anthony Souffle, The Gazette Photo by ANTHONY SOUFFLE, THE GAZETTE 

Parks advocates in Colorado Springs say they’re in a quandary over a ballot measure that would funnel money toward maintaining parks.

Their dilemma, as strange as it may sound, is rooted in an effort to find more funding for park maintenance.

The Colorado Springs City Council decided earlier this month to ask voters for permission to spend 15 percent of the Trails Open Space and Parks sales tax, or TOPS, to maintain city parks.

The Nov. 2 ballot question contains a two-year sunset provision.

(Click here to use The Gazette's online voter guide.)

TOPS, a one-tenth of a percent sales tax that voters approved in 1997, allows only 6 percent of the funds to be spent on maintenance.

The 6 percent generates about $340,000 a year, so the proposed 15 percent would bring in an additional $500,000 to $550,000, said Kurt Schroeder, the city’s parks, trails and open space manager.

Officials have not specified how the additional money would be spent.

But it “may help bridge part of the gap for increased irrigation,” said Mayor Lionel Rivera, who brought the ballot proposal forward.

“Everybody knows we need it, and we’ve seen in the last year that we do,” he said.
In April 2009, voters rejected a similar request, by a razor-thin margin.

Rivera said a couple of things have changed since then.

The request is for two years, not five, and “people have experienced the cutback in maintenance, and it’s certainly a different situation than a year and a half ago,” he said.
“Frankly, I just thought it would be a good idea to give the citizens a choice again,” he said.

But what might not change from 2009 is opposition from parks advocates, who want to ask voters in the next year or two to raise taxes for a regional authority to oversee parks.

“Here’s the tough part for us,” said Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition.

“We’ve been working tirelessly on this whole sustainable parks initiative, so we are certainly aware of the needs of parks, very aware. And our biggest concern is this is going to raise an additional $500,000, and the needs are about $9 million,” she said.

Still, others continue to believe that the intent of TOPS was to supplement the city’s parks budget, not to replace it.

Davies said the message of the campaign will be vital.

“How do we turn to residents and say, ‘We don’t support more maintenance of parks, but wait a minute, we support more maintenance of parks?’ It’s a fine line, so we just want to be very mindful of how people feel, keeping the overall prize in mind,” she said.

The coalition’s board is poised to take a formal position on the ballot question during its annual meeting Sept. 28.

“Our biggest fear would be that people would vote for this and then think the problem is solved,” Davies said.

Davies is also worried about the political repercussions of opposing the ballot question when her organization will ask the council to support a regional authority in the future.

“Maybe we will stay neutral because we know we need to partner with the council,” she said.

Call the writer at 476-1623

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