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Community should embrace paying for stormwater

By: The Gazette editorial
May 8, 2013 Updated: May 8, 2013 at 11:47 am
photo - Rick Ruggles is the City Stormwater Manager for Manitou Springs.
Rick Ruggles is the City Stormwater Manager for Manitou Springs. 

We commend Mayor Steve Bach for his role in bringing our region's stormwater infrastructure up to date, but the community must understand the magnitude of obligations ahead.

Managing drainage we create isn't a choice. It's a responsibility involving risk to lives and property. In an article for The Gazette's May 5 OP/ED page, Bach explained how Colorado Springs Utilities, Pikes Peak Highway and the airport are spending $46 million this year on stormwater projects. Part of the funding comes from $8.8 million Bach requested from the city's all-time-high emergency cash reserves. As a candidate, Bach promised to enhance the emergency reserves through sound fiscal management. He delivered, so we have immediate access to funds to help mitigate flooding likely to result from the Waldo Canyon burn scar.

But our drainage problems are hundreds of times greater than those created by the fire. City staff has estimated stormwater improvement needs at $500 million. The Regional Stormwater Task Force estimates the cost at nearly $700 million. Bach has asked the Public Works Department to commission a third opinion by an independent engineering firm.

'We'll need the remainder of 2013 to fully understand our stormwater challenge, to thoughtfully develop the best stormwater structure and to discuss all options with the community, ' Bach wrote. 'In light of past unsuccessful stormwater efforts, we must get it right this time. '

The most notorious stormwater 'effort ' has become a symbol of all that was wrong with city government before voters restructured it to divide powers and create checks and balances.

In 2005, the City Council unilaterally ran city government without the check provided by an executive branch. The council voted to create a Stormwater Enterprise that year to solve stormwater infrastructure problems. Hundreds of millions in projects would be funded by a fee imposed on all customers of Colorado Springs Utilities.

A fee, by definition, is voluntary. It is a price for access or a service. Think parking meter or legal advice.

A tax is a government demand for payment, backed by threats of liens, fines and confinement.

In Colorado Springs, government may impose a new tax only if it asks the electorate and a majority says 'yes. ' Given that people form governments to serve their wants and needs, it is only reasonable to have a law that requires politicians to ask customers how much government they want and/or need.

But members of the all-powerful 2005 council did not care to ask. A majority believed the electorate might be too stingy to say 'yes. ' So the council imposed a so-called 'fee ' that was seen by a majority of the governed as an illegal tax. The Stormwater Enterprise Fee became known as the 'rain tax ' by those who sneered at what the council had done. Voters retaliated in 2009 by approving initiative 300, which ended the 'rain tax ' and the city's Stormwater Enterprise.

The Gazette's editorial board has long held that voters were not averse to paying for drainage improvements. Springs voters have a long tradition of approving taxes proposed for specific, detailed investments that improve safety, transportation or education.

When voters killed the rain tax, they did so to send a message. They told politicians to respect the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights - the city and state law that protects us all from top-down tax increases. Voters told politicians they were not pleased with the attempt to end-run a law the governed enacted to constrain their public servants.

Today, Bach and other city officials hope the economy roars back with such vigor that existing tax structures will pay for stormwater projects ahead. Because that's not likely, politicians had best get busy educating voters about their responsibility to pay for the drainage they create.

'If it becomes evident that despite our best efforts those sources of funds fall short of our needs, I'll consider asking the voters in 2014 to approve new funding for stormwater, ' Bach wrote.

He would support new funding only if it includes a sunset clause and outsourcing to the private sector that favors local contractors.

This should not be a topic for debates about the merits of government and taxation or another boring discussion about 'quality of life ' in Colorado Springs. The drainage dilemma must be solved. We cannot continue living under threats of wayward stormwater that could destroy property and lives in our community and downstream.

It is good that our city's elected executive is open to a variety of options. We continue to believe a majority of the governed understand the need to pay for these essential improvements.

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