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County Commissioner takes Colorado Springs to task for sidestepping regional stormwater effort

July 15, 2013 Updated: July 16, 2013 at 6:14 am

Less than a day after the Pikes Peak region was deluged with rain and flash flood warnings, a regional stormwater task force met Monday with an elephant in the room.

While almost every entity with a stake in stormwater projects attended the meeting, a key player in the region - the city of Colorado Springs - was absent. County Commissioner Amy Lathen, a member of the task force, called it the "elephant in the room," and said it was time to talk about the city's refusal to participate.

"We don't have the collaboration with the executive branch of the city," Lathen said. "We have to be honest about it. I don't want to waste anybody's time and not be honest about it."

The Pikes Peak Regional Stormwater Task force - a group of business leaders, city councilors, county commissioners, water district representatives and Colorado Springs Utilities representatives - discussed the long list of stormwater needs across the region. The group laid out possible funding formulas to pay for the estimated $900 million in regional drainage projects, which would cost roughly $11.5 million a year. The members talked about how addressing stormwater needs must be done regionally - and the city, county and all other local entities need to work together.

But the group's work has been done without the blessing of Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach, a huge gap in the effort, because Colorado Springs accounts for roughly 80 percent of the region's stormwater needs, Lathen said. It's a control issue, she said. But the city needs to get away from which entity is bigger and become part of a regional solution.

"You can't go along without them," she said.

As recently as two weeks ago, city officials sent the county a message that the city does not recognize the work of the task force and is not interested in a regional stormwater program, she said.

About a year ago, the task force formed with the backing of the mayor. But after the first round of work, which included making a list of all the area's drainage needs, Bach pulled his support from the group. He questioned the list and cost of the projects, including the nearly $700 million projected for Colorado Springs' portion, and brought in his own consultant for a second opinion. That report is expected to be complete in October.

When the second opinion report is complete, the city intends to meet with the county and utilities staff and decide the next step, Colorado Springs City Attorney Chris Melcher said Monday.

"The mayor - once the report is done - would support city staff sitting down with county staff and utilities staff to talk about regional collaboration," Melcher said.

But regional collaboration is yet to be defined. Bach has said he wants the city to take the reins on its stormwater work, while coordinating the order of projects with the county and neighboring municipalities.

Meanwhile, the task force continues to meet, and hopes to have a sit-down with the mayor sometime this summer. The group would like to see a ballot issue addressing stormwater funding in November 2014.

They task force has come up with three funding models to pay for the projects.

One option is to set up a regional authority, similar to a stormwater authority in Arapahoe County that collects stormwater fees to pay for construction, operation and maintenance of drainage projects. A second option is to model a stormwater group after the Pikes Peak Regional Transportation Authority, which was created in 2004 by voters in Colorado Springs, El Paso County, Manitou Springs and Green Mountain Falls, and collects a 1 percent sales tax for transportation and transit improvements. The third option would be a hybrid of the two.

The task force will detail the options at a joint meeting in August with El Paso County commissioners and the Colorado Springs City Council, which has sent representatives to the group's meetings. The task force also aims to schedule a community meeting on the topic.

Still, the unknown factor is whether the Bach will back any of the proposals. He has said he is interested in putting his own funding proposal to voters.

Melcher said his office is researching funding models across the country.

"The best next step is to wait for the second opinion," Melcher said. "When it's done, what we might learn is there is a need for much smaller projects or there is a smaller amount on the projects that needs to be spent. Those would be very important factors in determining how we go forward."

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