Colorado Springs chief of staff raises alternatives to stormwater fee

June 9, 2014 Updated: June 9, 2014 at 9:57 pm
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Colorado Springs Chief of Staff Steve Cox raised the idea of boosting sales taxes Monday to pay for $1.3 billion in capital improvement projects, including stormwater and drainage issues, in hopes of avoiding a November ballot issue asking voters for a stormwater fee.

Cox told the City Council at a work session that stormwater and drainage issues are only 26 percent of the city's capital needs. The city is crumbling, he said, and needs to work on its streets, parks, public safety buildings and information technology.

Mayor Steve Bach, Cox said, believes the city could use existing bonds, or increase sales taxes to pay for a variety of capital projects. Bach is not sold on the idea of asking voters for a stormwater fee exclusively for stormwater projects - something that a regional stormwater task force has proposed.

Bach is concerned, Cox said, that voters would not approve both a stormwater fee and some other bond or tax for capital projects. The better plan is to wrap up all the projects into one funding proposal, he said.

Cox asked the City Council to discuss all funding options with the mayor before deciding on a November stormwater ballot issue. It would be up to the El Paso County Commission to put the question on the ballot, but the City Council must sign off on any intergovernmental agreements.

"We've been so laser-focused on stormwater that we have not had a discussion on all the capital needs," Cox said.

In his presentation to the City Council, Cox listed dozens of high-priority projects including a new police substation, street maintenance and park improvements and maintenance.

In October, Bach advanced his funding idea of renewing the 1999 voter-approved Springs Community Improvements Program, which was the sale of $88 million in municipal bonds to pay for 29 capital improvement projects. The projects were completed in 2004 and the debt, paid for from the general fund, is scheduled to be paid off in 2016.

Bach said the city could take the $7.9 million it uses to pay the current SCIP bonds, add $7 million from the general fund, and bond for $175 million. He would want to ask voters to extend the SCIP in April 2015.

That plan would spend money on flood control projects, roads and bridges, public safety infrastructure and parks.

But Monday, Cox gave other possible funding options including increasing sales tax by either ? cent or by 1 cent to pay for either $52 million or $70 million a year in capital projects. Cox said Bach was not ready to endorse any of the options but rather just wanted to jump-start the conversation.

That did not win over council member Val Snider, who was a member of the stormwater task force. "It's an idea - not a plan," Snider said about the mayor's funding proposal. "We have a plan. We followed a methodical process. We have a documented public process."

Snider said the task force had economic studies, community surveys, attorney opinions, economists' opinions and public input.

But now the clock is ticking. The task force has a July 26 deadline to get ballot language approved if it wants a stormwater fee question to be voted on in November - which has been the task force's goal for more than a year, said Rachel Beck, a member of the task force. An analysis by two University of Colorado at Colorado Springs finance and economics professors says that there are at least $250 million in high-priority projects and a total of $700 million in needed drainage and flood control projects across the Fountain Creek Watershed.

Under the task force plan, members could include Colorado Springs, El Paso County, Manitou Springs, Fountain, Green Mountain Falls and Palmer Lake and would create a stormwater authority to oversee the projects. Each entity would get back the amount of money it puts into the fund over a five-year rolling average, said Dave Munger, the task force co-chairman.

The stormwater task force says that an $8 to $12 monthly fee could raise about $50 million a year for 20 to 30 years to pay for drainage projects and ongoing maintenance. The group has been working with attorneys to draft intergovernmental agreements that would create a stormwater authority to oversee the program.

Cox said the task force could wait one more year to discuss other funding options.

Council member Don Knight agreed that the city may only have one shot at getting voters to approve some sort of tax or fee for capital projects. He said he was willing to work with Bach on a compromise.

"This is an area where we can really compromise and work together," he said.

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