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Colorado Springs firefighters join police association in endorsing stormwater fees

October 12, 2017 Updated: October 12, 2017 at 10:14 pm
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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

Colorado Springs firefighters have joined the city's police association in supporting a set of proposed stormwater fees for Colorado Springs.

Dave Noblitt, president of IAFF Local 5, offered the union's endorsement Wednesday evening. The Colorado Springs Police Protective Association's announced its support in September.

The moves are unsurprising because both groups stand to benefit from the fees, opponents say. They call the fees a "bait and switch" and note they won't raise additional money for the city's stormwater problems.

The fees, which will appear on El Paso County's ballot as Issue 2A, are expected to raise an estimated $17 million annually by charging homeowners $5 a month and nonresidential property owners $30 a month for every acre they own. The fees would last 20 years and all the money raised must be spent on the city's stormwater obligations, now paid for with general fund money.

Mayor John Suthers, who has strongly backed 2A's passage, said the stormwater fees would free up money that he is recommending using for hiring more police officers and firefighters and increasing their salaries.

Staffing for both departments has declined in recent years, City Council President Richard Skorman said. Often first responders will train to work for the city and then resign to take higher paying jobs elsewhere. Passing 2A would bolster the departments' staffing levels, help keep employees and improve slow response times, Skorman and other supporters have said.

Noblitt said the Fire Department employs the same number of people as it did in 2008, though firefighters now respond to about 30,000 more calls each year.

Douglas Bruce, author of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights - commonly called TABOR - and an anti-tax advocate, says 2A merely changes the funding source for the city's stormwater obligations.

"The ballot title does not say this is for police and fire, for city staff, for pensions, for hiring more people for general government," said Bruce, who was convicted of felony tax evasion and filing a false tax return in 2012. "It doesn't say it, that's why it's a bait and switch."

Councilman Bill Murray agrees with Bruce and has repeatedly complained about a lack of specific information from Suthers on how the general fund money will be spent.

The city's draft budget for 2018 does not include the additional revenue 2A would raise. The city's newly appointed Chief Financial Officer Charae McDaniel said a second draft including revenue from the fees will be released if 2A passes. Councilman Don Knight, who also opposes 2A, said even without the fees the city's 2018 draft budget set aside $5 million for raising salaries to the market average. Police officers' and firefighters' salaries are expected to be raised to that average over a two-year period while other city employees' salaries will be raised over five years.

In addition, Knight said, voters in April approved using a total of $12 million in excess revenue this year and next for stormwater obligations.

The third council opponent, Andy Pico, declined to comment.

Suthers and Skorman say it's no secret where the general fund money would go, but argue that a dedicated funding source for the city's stormwater obligations is still an important step. It would especially help in a high-profile federal and state lawsuit filed against the city addressing contaminated stormwater runoff affecting Pueblo County and other downstream communities.

Suthers, a former Colorado attorney general, said he is "absolutely confident" that a dedicated funding source for stormwater obligations would help the city settle the ongoing lawsuit.

Some of the city's financial shortcomings are actually due to Bruce's TABOR cap, which restricts the amount of money governments in Colorado are allowed to keep, Skorman said. And although the fees wouldn't increase the amount spent on stormwater, the freed general fund money would help the city provide valuable and long-neglected services, he said.

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