Updated: May 8, 2014 at 9:00 am
Mayor Steve Bach stepped onto a city bus Wednesday to lead a media tour of the city's aging buildings, parks and streets.
Across the city, he said, there are $1.3 billion worth of capital needs, including $534 million in flood control and stormwater needs. A recession and urban sprawl put the city in this position with city services spread thin over 200 square miles, he said.
He's on a mission to convince the City Council that it should reconsider its support for a proposed November county-wide ballot initiative that would ask voters to pay a fee for regional stormwater projects. Instead, he said, there should be a more comprehensive funding approach that would spend money on all capital needs, including replacing and renovating aging police and fire stations, modernizing city parks and repairing city streets.
"Stormwater is very important, but you will see today, we have other essential needs that we are not meeting," Bach told members of the local media.
One way to pay for the city's capital needs is to ask voters to extend existing bond debt for 20 years to pay for $175 million in capital needs, including millions in stormwater and flood control projects, Bach said. Other ideas may be to ask voters to increase the sales tax or the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax.
"I don't know the answer," Bach said. "But I think it deserves full public debate."
No one denies that the city has a long list of capital needs, said City Council member Jan Martin, a member of the Regional Stormwater Task Force. But 95 percent of residents who responded to a survey late last year identified stormwater projects as an important issue facing the city. Further, she said, 81 percent of the respondents said stormwater projects should have its own dedicated funding source - such as a tax or fee - that is ongoing and long term. In the survey, which has a 5 percent margin of error, 73 percent of the respondents said the projects should be handled as a regional effort with the county and other neighboring cities and 78 percent want a say in which projects get built.
Martin said she is willing to talk about alternative solutions for paying for the city's capital needs, but she feels strongly that the residents have said they want a regional solution for stormwater and they want a dedicated funding source.
"The community would like to see us solve the stormwater problem and hopefully in the process it could free up some money in the city that could be used for other capital improvement projects," Martin said.
Bach has not been a fan of creating a regional stormwater governing entity, which is part of the stormwater task force proposal. He said he supports the city working to plan regional stormwater projects but would want Colorado Springs to manage funds and projects for itself.
In October, Bach advanced a proposal that would ask voters to extend the Springs Community Improvements Program, which was the sale of $88 million in municipal bonds to pay for 29 capital improvement projects. Those bonds are set to retire in 2016.
He fears that voters would not pass both a stormwater fee and reauthorize bond debt and believes there is a better chance for approval if it were one issue.
Under a SCIP reauthorization plan, the city could spend more than $20 million a year for five years on flood control projects. But it also would dedicate $11.5 million a year to roads and bridges, $2.5 million to public safety infrastructure and $1 million to parks. Bach also has said the city would find $5 million a year in the general fund to set aside for stormwater projects.
"If we do stormwater only, when are we going to do streets?" he said. "When will we do public safety - we have a fire station that must be replaced. I think we have to have an honest conversation among City Council and myself in a transparent public way on what is our plan for the future."
It's late in the game to negotiate different terms for a November ballot question, said Dave Munger, who is heading up the Citizen's Stormwater Task Force. The group, which recently took over for the Regional Stormwater Task Force, has been working on the stormwater funding issue for two years and now is drafting ballot language to present to the El Paso County Commissioners to meet a July deadline for November's ballot. It would likely ask voters in the city, county and five neighboring towns - Manitou Springs, Fountain, Green Mountain Falls, Monument and Palmer Lake - to approve a monthly fee of $8 to $12 to raise about $50 million a year for 20 to 30 years to pay for drainage projects and ongoing maintenance throughout the Fountain Creek Watershed.
El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen, also a member of the stormwater task force, said the stormwater ballot language is not a done deal. However, she said, respondents to a task force survey said they did not want to combine flood control projects funding with other capital needs.
"People are very clear about this," she said. "They do not want a broad based multi-faceted ballot question."
Bach said he will meet with City Council president Keith King and council member Merv Bennett next week to see if he can get support for his capital improvement funding ideas.
"I feel strongly that we must take a holistic approach," he said.
Stops along the media tour Wednesday included the city's busiest police station, Sand Creek Division, where the ceiling leaks and more than 100 employees are crowded into 17,000 square feet. Interview rooms are used for evidence storage and there are not enough interview rooms to safely secure suspects.
Police Chief Pete Carey also reported a nearly full impound lot and 62 police vehicles that need to be replaced. It would cost about $8 million to replace the Sand Creek substation and about $1.5 million to replace the aging police vehicles.
"We always seem to be behind the curve when it comes to our vehicles," he said. "I don't' think they are cars that you would want to drive."
Fire Chief Christopher Riley showed off the city's oldest fire station - No. 1, built in 1925 on South Weber Street - that is in need of better ventilation and heating and more space for the nine fire fighters who are cramped in the living quarters, he said.
The city's engineer Stuart King said there are about $372 million in medium and low priority stormwater and flood control needs including the intersection of Chelton Road and Santa Rosa Street at the entrance to The Citadel mall. That intersection flooded in summer of 2012 and continues to be vulnerable, he said. He put the price tag at about $1 million, not including the street and curb work that would need to be replaced caused by the flooding.
Meanwhile, some city tennis courts are locked because they are in such disrepair. Some play pits are not accessible to children with disabilities and park parking lots are repaved at 1 percent a year when the city should be repaving 10 percent a year, Bach said.
"I just don't feel comfortable continuing to kick the can down the road," Bach said. "When I have asked, those supporting the regional stormwater tax, how do you propose we handle all the other capital needs, I have not gotten an answer."