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Colorado Springs City Council approves stormwater ordinance

August 8, 2017 Updated: August 9, 2017 at 8:56 am
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FILE - Work was underway Monday, December 12, 2016 on the first portion of a three-phase stormwater project on a tributary of Monument Creek. The project is intended to stop erosion and extensive sediment from entering Monument Creek where it empties onto the United States Air Force Academy. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Though acknowledging that questions and concerns still remain on the topic, the Colorado Springs City Council approved an ordinance revamping the city's long-defunded stormwater enterprise fund.

The vote, opposed by Councilmen Don Knight, Bill Murray and Andy Pico, is the council's first official step toward placing a set of stormwater fees on El Paso County's November ballot. It also constitutes a hard-fought but preliminary victory for Mayor John Suthers, who has strongly advocated for the fees since June.

The ordinance approved during Tuesday's regular council meeting rewords the city's existing code on stormwater fees, which is left over from 2009 when an earlier council put the enterprise in mothballs after voters approved a ballot measure leaving its legality in question. The enterprise fund was originally imposed in 2005 without a vote from city residents.

Before any bills are sent out, however, the council still must approve the official ballot language, and Colorado Springs voters must approve resurrecting the fees.

The city already has reserved a spot on El Paso County's Nov. 7 election and has until Sept. 8 to finalize the ballot language. If that happens, and voters then give the green light, property owners won't see a bill until July 2018. City staff would use the time in between to cement how the process will be administered.

For some, that lack of specificity has been a problem.

Deputy City Attorney Tom Florczak said during Tuesday's meeting the council would not be able to adjust the fees unless ordered to do so by a court or required to do so by an intergovernmental agreement. But Murray still wanted more detail on how or in what proportion the fees could be adjusted, if a situation called for it.

The proposed fees would charge residential property owners $5 every month while nonresidential property owners would pay $30 per month for every acre of land they own. The fees are expected to raise an estimated $17 million annually and would last for 20 years, in conjunction with the city's stormwater agreement with Pueblo County.

Even questions from Councilwoman Yolanda Avila, who supported the ordinance, went largely unanswered. She asked if unpaid bills would affect renters' utilities or their credit.

Stormwater fees ultimately will be the responsibility of property owners, Florczak said. Details surrounding the fees' impact on renters, if any, are not yet clear.

Though property owners would be responsible for paying the fees, Colorado Springs resident and business owner Jaymen Johnson said landlords could charge tenants for the fees, overcollecting and pocketing the difference.

Johnson said he is confused by the proposed fees and how the process will work; he called for more discussion or town hall meetings that would involve the public.

But Dirk Draper, CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, said delaying the issue further could generate more "bad faith" with communities downstream as well as the federal court.

Suthers has said he believes passing a new set of stormwater fees could have a positive impact on the Environmental Protection Agency's ongoing lawsuit against the city.

Dave Munger, executive director of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, said he supports the proposed fees and called the issue "long overdue."

Since 2009, the city has paid for its stormwater obligations out of the general fund. Passing the fees would free millions in that fund, which Suthers has said could then be spent updating the city's aging vehicle fleet or hiring new police officers.

"This isn't an open fee," Council President Richard Skorman said. "This isn't a slush fund. We're not trying to take more money than we need."

The council will vote on the official ballot language Aug. 22.

Also Tuesday, the council unanimously voted to create a military sales tariff, which would cover costs for Colorado Springs Utilities to act as an intermediary, buying power from the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and selling it to Fort Carson.

With approval from the council and the Utilities board, the district will begin construction on a hydroelectric plant downstream from the Pueblo Dam. Half of the electricity generated by the plant will then be sold to Fort Carson while the other half will be sold to Fountain Utilities. The plant could be operational by May 2018.

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