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COLUMN: Ratepayers will pay for watering city parks

By: Rachel Stovall
May 24, 2018 Updated: May 24, 2018 at 4:15 am
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I recently read a headline in The Gazette, "Utilities board recommends charging residents for watering Colorado Springs parks". Reading the headline ticked me off. I wondered aloud, "Who was in charge of this?"

And then I remembered. Our City Council members also serve as the board of the Colorado Springs Utilities. That's right, both of these powerful entities are run by the exact same people.

I've often wondered if there was a conflict of interest in using the same people for both of the important tasks that must be performed by these powerful organizations. As it turns out having a council also serve as the utilities board is not unusual practice across the country.

You may not have been aware of this move to increase utility rates. The rates are going up over the next two years. Colorado Springs Utilities will transfer the increased funds they raise to the city of Colorado Springs to pay for watering our city parks, open spaces and forests. The rate hike will be permanent.

For several years, the city has done the bare minimum in watering at local parks. Citizens have complained. Council member Richard Skorman said we treat our parks like "a stepchild" when asked about our inadequate watering practices.

He's right. People move to Colorado Springs for our beautiful landscapes, not dying ones. It was time to do something.

This rate hike is minimal, 68 cents per month for residential customers. The costs are more for commercial and industrial ratepayers as can be expected. This increase is expected to raise about $1.14 million in 2019 and $2.25 million in 2020.

We have done this kind of rate increase before. And voters have approved several ballot measures used to bring in additional funds for our utility company. It seems like business as usual in the City Beautiful.

Or does it?

This expense for watering the parks, and trees including forest areas could have been paid out of the money in the general fund of the city.

Through taxes the citizens of Colorado Springs have already furnished our city the $1.2 million that is needed to meet our $3.3 million dollar annual watering budget. Our council simply voted not to use city funds. Instead they presented utility ratepayers (who are also taxpayers) the city's bill for water.

Seems unfair, doesn't it?

Don Knight, Andy Pico and Bill Murray voted no on the rate hike. The six remaining council members voted for the increase. The members who approved the price hike will have local voters pay up front in taxes (that go into the various city coffers) and then have us pay their water bill again as utility customers.

I wish that I could make someone else pay my bills. Don't you?

I'm not bashing our City Council. I also recognize that over the last five years, the City Utilities Board has worked to cut one-quarter of a billion dollars out of their budget to match drops in local revenue. I get that they both are trying to solve serious problems.

I know that we don't have the highest tax base to create revenue. Recently, The Wall Street Journal surveyed cities ranked on per capita taxes and Colorado Springs is the 7th lowest in the country. "But Rachel" you say, "This isn't a tax hike."

Are you sure?

City Councilman Andy Pico says, "This move is a backdoor tax, getting around TABOR. And that is a bad precedent to set." I talked with him during a short, but lively visit at the city council offices. "What's next? Raising electric rates for the streetlamps?"

I hope not. Our city council/utility board need to pay their own bills. I'm sure that double charging local residents, first in taxes, then in utility rates for the city's bills is not what we should allow.

All rate increases of Colorado Springs Utilities happen in the fall. The meetings are public. Residents, make sure to be there and let your voice be heard. Or let them know now.

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Rachel Stovall is a longtime community advocate and organizer. Also a fundraising, media and marketing consultant, Stovall is most known for singing with her dance band Phat Daddy and the Phat Horn Doctors.

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