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Colorado Springs transit budget tiff simmers

March 24, 2014 Updated: March 24, 2014 at 7:45 am

Mayor Steve Bach says the city does not legally need to maintain a specific annual transit budget to participate in the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority tax program.

Bach was responding to a March 12 letter sent to the city of Colorado Springs from the PPRTA board of directors who said the city is falling short in its transit budget obligations.

The PPRTA board said voters were promised in 2004 that the tax - a 1 percent sales tax to be used for transportation and transit improvements - would not fund the existing city or county budgets.

In 2004, Colorado Springs spent $5.7 million on transit, which would become the "baseline" amount promised to be spent every year or what has been called "maintenance of effort agreement."

But for the past four years, the city's transit budget has fallen short by at least $1.8 million annually, the PPRTA board said. The board, which includes three Colorado Springs City Council members, voted unanimously at its March 12 meeting to ask the city to deliver a financial plan by June detailing how its general fund will achieve and sustain the promised transit budget of $5.7 million a year.

But in their response to the PPRTA board, Bach and his chief of staff Steve Cox said there is no legal requirement for the city to maintain a predetermined funding level in its transit budget.

"The city attorney's office has advised the council and the administration that this language was aspirational and non-binding on the city, and that the funding of city transit programs is left to the sole discretion of the city. Therefore, the 'maintenance of efforts' is not a mandatory requirement," Bach wrote in his letter the PPRTA board of directors.

Bach wrote that the city attorney's legal opinion is consistent with the idea that one City Council cannot bind future councils to appropriate funds for any purpose.

"The city council members who approved the agreement in 2004 could not have foreseen the economic crisis that began in 2008, the Waldo Canyon fire of 2012 or the many other factors that complicate prioritizing our city's budget every year," Bach wrote.

In 2004, voters from Colorado Springs, El Paso County, Manitou Springs and Green Mountain Falls approved the PPRTA tax. The member cities and the county signed an Intergovernmental Agreement that said the tax money would not replace their existing transportation and transit budgets.

Under the agreement, 50 percent of the tax collected is used for capital projects, 35 percent is used for maintenance and 10 percent is used for public transit, which goes to the city of Colorado Springs to operate bus service for the region.

The city slashed its transit budget in 2010 from $7.6 million to $2.6 million. Cox said the city's goal is to have robust transit system.

"The question is how do we fund it," he said. "When the economy spiraled downward, we cut all sorts of services."

From 2011 to 2014, the city increased its transit budget. When averaged out, the city has met the baseline spending each year since 2004. But the PPRTA board said averaging is not part of its financial methodology. Further, the board said the city's characterization of the transit budget as aspirational diminishes the pledges made to voters.

This year, the city's transit budget increased from $3.7 million in 2013 to $3.8 million in 2014. In October, when Bach released his 2014 budget, he said he was happy the city could expand bus service in 2014, which includes restoring Sunday bus service and adding a route on Powers Boulevard to begin at the end of this month.

The PPRTA board cannot force the city to increase its transit budget, but as its governmental entity, it does control the PPRTA money, including the $10 million a year that goes to Colorado Springs to run the bus services, board members said.

Amy Lathen, the PPRTA board's chairwoman and an El Paso County Commissioner, said Friday that the PPRTA board agrees with its Citizen Advisory Committee that the maintenance of effort agreement for transit funding is not simply a goal.

"We believe that this was a promise made to the citizens and as those entrusted with accountability for the PPRTA ballot initiative, we will continue to seek the appropriate maintenance of effort with the city of Colorado Springs," she said.

"We appreciate current efforts by the city to provide transit services and understand difficult budget constraints. However, we will continue to work with them to establish a plan which will accomplish the level of funding promised to the voters."

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