Colorado Springs City Council will not ask for sales tax increase to benefit parks

January 10, 2017 Updated: January 11, 2017 at 9:31 am
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Blue skies and fresh snowfall made for a picture perfect scene in Garden of the Gods Friday morning, January 6, 2017. Photo by Mark Reis

Colorado Springs voters won't get to decide on a sales tax to benefit underfunded city parks because that question could detract from a stormwater measure already going on the April 4 ballot.

The City Council voted 6-3 Tuesday not to consider a resolution for the parks ballot issue, hours after Chief of Staff Jeff Greene told the council that Mayor John Suthers didn't want the resolution to go forward.

Suthers wants voters to let the city keep up to $6 million from revenues that exceeded legal limits in 2016 under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. That money would be spent on stormwater solutions, which have become so overdue that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state health department filed suit against the city in November.

Any remaining revenue deemed excess under TABOR would be refunded to residents on their utility bills.

"We have to address infrastructure first," Greene said, adding that the mayor recognizes the dire need for more parks money.

Funding continues to lag for the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services - a huge issue in a community that repeatedly has supported sales taxes and other revenues to help parks and open space.

When the recession hit, that department had a $19 million budget. It got chopped to about $3 million as the city scurried to make ends meet without cutting police and fire services.

The parks budget for 2017 is at $12.2 million, but a huge maintenance backlog built up through the lean years of the recession, when the city wouldn't even water the parks.

"Something has to be done. Our parks need us," said Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler, who joined Councilmen Bill Murray and Tom Strand in voting to put the 0.1 percent sales tax on the ballot.

But the EPA lawsuit could require the city to spend even more on stormwater than the $460 million that it is pledged to spend by 2036 under an intergovernmental agreement with Pueblo County, said Councilman Don Knight.

Knight and Councilman Andy Pico both said the city relies too heavily on sales tax.

Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition, said she was disappointed by the vote and by the council's failure to recommend a real solution.

Had the measure made the ballot, she said, "Our people would be out saying, 'You need to support stormwater and parks.' He (Suthers) has taken away the incentive to actively push for it."

A slew of others also testified on behalf of parks, including Dave Munger, executive director of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations.

"This isn't just about investing in recreation," Munger told the council. "It's actually a stimulus to our economy. For a city that prides itself on that mountain and our outdoor way of life, having a parks system well-maintained ... will go a long way" to making the city more competitive.

"I would urge you to vote for this," he said. "When we renewed the RTA (Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority), the sheriff wanted an increase to support his personnel. People made the right choice in both and voted to increase both."

But the business community opposed the measure, said Dirk Draper, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC.

"We ask that you do not refer this in the interest of increasing costs of doing business in Colorado Springs," Draper said. "We view infrastructure as a higher priority than parks."

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