Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized the nature of the intergovernmental agreement between Colorado Springs and Pueblo County which began in April, 2016.
While Mayor John Suthers touts stormwater fees as a route to financial stability for Colorado Springs, others see them as a symptom of the city's insatiable appetite for cash.
Some worry the city will inevitably raise the fees, which appear on El Paso County's November ballot as Issue 2A.
According to the ballot language, the city can raise the fees if ordered to do so by a judge, to come into compliance with state and federal laws or to abide by any intergovernmental agreements preceding June 1, 2016.
A high-profile lawsuit filed against the city by state and federal governments or an intergovernmental agreement the city entered into with Pueblo County last year are the two most likely causes of future fee increases.
Suthers argues that any increase from the agreement with Pueblo would be minimal and 2A is a proactive effort to mitigate high-dollar judgments against the city in the ongoing lawsuit.
If passed, the fees would charge homeowners $5 a month and nonresidential property owners $30 per acre each month. The fees would last 20 years and are expected to raise as much as $18 million a year for the city's stormwater obligations, which currently are met using the general fund.
With a dedicated stormwater funding source in place, money freed in the general fund would be spent hiring new police officers and firefighters, Suthers said. If 2A passes, the city will be in good financial shape for the next two decades, he has said.
But Councilmen Bill Murray and Don Knight, who oppose 2A, are dubious.
Knight said the city's wants will always be greater than the budget allows. The general fund has increased in recent years and the city can afford to continue paying for stormwater that way.
And Murray said new police officers and firefighters serve a "Trojan horse" and open the door for fee increases.
In April 2016, the city entered into a $460 million, 20-year agreement with Pueblo County to complete 71 stormwater projects. The city’s annual investments in those projects increase
every five years and average $20 million a year over the life of the agreement. The investments currently sit at $17 million a year.
If 2A passes and revenue hits the $18 million estimate in 2019, the first full year the fees will be in effect, the city can cover the $17 million investments. But in 2021 the city’s scheduled investments increase to $19 million a year, leaving a $1 million deficit.
Suthers said he expects growth to help cover the increases, but money from the general fund can also help.
Knight expects increases, however.
"My fear is that come fall 2020, when we are doing the 2021 budget, if 2A passes, the council is going to vote to raise the fee," Knight said.
Of the $18 million the fees are expected to collect, $7.5 million will come from 125,000 homes in the city, said Public Works Director Travis Easton. The remaining $10.5 million will come from 29,166 acres throughout the city. A breakdown of the largest acreages covered by 2A was not immediately available.
If the home and acreage numbers remain constant through 2021 and the council votes to raise the fees to cover the $1 million difference, homeowners would see an increase of about 25 cents and the per-acre cost would increase by about $1.50.
But Murray said he's more concerned about increases because of a court order.
The Department of Justice last year filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency over contaminated stormwater runoff affecting Pueblo County and other downstream communities and agriculture. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District have since joined the ongoing lawsuit as plaintiffs.
Colorado Springs could face punitive damages and hundreds of millions of dollars in court-ordered stormwater requirements, which could double the fees, Murray said.
While Easton said the lawsuit's outcome is impossible to predict, it's unlikely the fees would double. And Rachel Beck, manager for the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC's campaign supporting 2A said Murray's estimates represent "jumps in logic" and speculation.
Increases are a possibility, Easton and Beck said, and the ballot language is clear about that.
The issue is "not trying to convince citizens that they're signing up for a $5 fee in perpetuity," Beck said.
Suthers said the city's liability in the lawsuit likely won't amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.
The complaint filed against the city emphasizes a lack of a dedicated revenue stream for stormwater obligations and passing 2A would be a proactive approach in keeping future judgements against the city low, Suthers said.