Request for money guarantee stalls TOPS ballot question

DANIEL CHACÓN Updated: January 8, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: January 8, 2013

A ballot proposal asking Colorado Springs voters to modify the Parks, Trails and Open Space sales tax to allow the city to spend a bigger portion on park maintenance is in jeopardy of losing Mayor Steve Bach’s support.

Parks advocates are urging the City Council to include a “maintenance of effort” clause to ensure the city uses the money to supplement, not replace, general fund spending on parks if voters approve the measure in April.

“The TOPS Working Committee and the Parks Advisory Board both said, ‘We can live with this change to the TOPS initiative, but we would really like a guarantee that (general fund) money for parks is not going to diminish because you’re now getting this extra money,’” said Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition.

Laura Neumann, the mayor’s chief of staff, told the council at its formal meeting Tuesday that Bach won’t support the ballot proposal if it includes such a provision. Bach doesn’t want to be “locked in,” Neumann said.

“Mayor Bach will not stand behind that,” she said. “He feels strongly about that.”

After the meeting, Neumann said entering a maintenance of effort clause for one service “is simply not fiscally responsible” when there are many city services in need of funding.

“We must have the latitude to prioritize citizen and safety/infrastructure needs without the shackle of an MOE developed with the best of intentions at the time, but perhaps not deemed a priority at the time of decision-making months and years later,” she said in an email.

“This is said with the respect for all those on the parks board and parks committees who developed the ballot language and the intent behind the MOE. Their passion and intent of the MOE is well respected; but is considered hindering and precedent setting at the executive level,” she said.

The council was scheduled to vote Tuesday to refer a question modifying TOPS to the April ballot but postponed the decision until Jan. 22. The vote to postpone was 7-2, with council members Merv Bennett and Angela Dougan opposed.

As part of the motion to postpone, the council asked the City Attorney’s Office to prepare a “legally binding” maintenance of effort clause to consider Jan. 22. The council will consider three other ballot proposals submitted by citizens on that day, too.

Voters approved TOPS in 1997. The one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax generates about $6 million a year.

TOPS caps administrative costs at 3 percent and allows 6 percent to be used for maintenance. It requires at least 60 percent of the funding to be used to purchase open space and at least 20 percent to build and maintain trails. The rest can be used for parks.

Under the ballot issue proposed for April, the portion that goes into park acquisition could be used for acquisition, development, renovation and maintenance of any park.

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