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Colorado Springs City Council debates stormwater fees

August 7, 2017 Updated: August 7, 2017 at 7:27 pm
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Two Colorado Springs employees work to widen a drain on Logan Avenue south of Platte Avenue on Thursday, May 18, 2017. The project is the first of 26 that were approved in April when voters allowed Colorado Springs to keep $12 million in excess revenue for stormwater projects. (Gazette file photo)

Colorado Springs City Council members debated for hours during a work session Monday about whether the time is right to ask voters to resurrect stormwater fees for the city.

Council members supporting the issue say the city is in dire need of the money now, while those opposing say city staff hasn't involved them enough in the process and the timeline for reviving the fee is too short.

In June, Mayor John Suthers told the council he was prioritizing the fees' revival this year; he's advocated heavily for the issue to be placed on El Paso County's November ballot. The fees would raise an estimated $17 million annually, freeing up money in the city's general fund for other pressing problems.

The council will vote Tuesday on an ordinance that revamps the city's old stormwater enterprise fund. That enterprise began in 2005 and was defunded in 2009. If the ordinance passes on Tuesday, the council will vote later this month on the official language to be used on the November ballot. The city has already reserved a spot on the ballot and has until Sept. 8 to finalize the question's language.

Acknowledging concerns brought up by fellow council members, Councilwoman Yolanda Avila quoted the French philosopher Voltaire, saying she supports putting the fees to a vote.

"Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Avila said. "It's time to set the vision and make it happen. . With all of our great minds together I'm sure we can make something happen, along with citizen input."

Councilman Don Knight, however, said he'd rather delay and work on the proposal more.

As the fees are proposed, a residential property owner would pay a flat $5 fee every month while nonresidential property owners would pay a flat $30 per month for every acre of impervious surface on the land. Knight said he's concerned that a retired couple with a fixed income would pay the same for a smaller lot as a wealthy, dual-income couple with no children and a substantially larger home. That lack of equity will doom the fee to failure at the ballot, he said.

"There is nothing magical about putting this on in November. We can put this on in February and we can put this on in March," he said. "It is extremely important to take the time to get something that has been well vetted."

Holding a special election could cost the city around $300,000 more than participating in the county's November election, City Clerk Sarah Johnson said. But if that extra time means voters are more likely to approve the issue, Knight said it would be money well spent.

Suthers mentioned the Environmental Protection Agency's ongoing lawsuit against the city, which notes the city's lack of a "dependable revenue source" for stormwater needs. Reinstating the fees could benefit the city during the litigation, he said.

Councilman David Geislinger agreed that a judge would look on the move favorably.

"We are going to curry favor by establishing a more reasonable, and a more certain, revenue stream to fund this obligation," he said.

While Suthers has said he would spend freed general fund money on new police officers and on the city's aging vehicle fleet, Councilman Bill Murray and Knight noted the proposal lacks specificity on those expenditures.

"This is an absolute blank check for an enterprise that is our responsibility," Murray said. "And if they don't give us the documentation, we should not go forward with this thing."

Acknowledging that many details have not yet been established, Deputy City Attorney Tom Florczak said that work would be done if voters approve the issue.

"As stewards of the taxpayer's money, there's a point where you say you're not going to go the extra mile and spend extra money at this moment until you know that the voters have approved it," Florczak said.

Calling the city's original imposition of the stormwater fees a "debacle," City Council President Richard Skorman said he supports putting the fees on the ballot and he's glad voters are involved this time around.

Skorman said he hopes voters will see the city's need for the fees and won't interpret them as unfair or burdensome.

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