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November ballot question would add extra $50 million to annual stormwater spending

March 26, 2014 Updated: March 27, 2014 at 8:23 am

If voters approve a stormwater fee in November, the estimated $50 million collected annually would be in addition to what cities and the county already spend on stormwater projects, organizers said.

The group working on the proposed initiative wants to put that promise into the ballot language so there is no confusion in the future, they said.

The concept is called a "maintenance of effort" agreement and means a city or the county won't cut back on its typical annual spending on stormwater and flood control projects when the new money starts rolling in.

It was one of the finer points of a massive multi-year, $700 million stormwater proposition discussed Wednesday during a joint meeting of Colorado Springs City Council and El Paso County Commissioners.

A citizen's stormwater advisory group is preparing a ballot question that it will bring to the El Paso County Commissioners for consideration on the November ballot.

The group says that an $8 to $12 monthly fee could raise about $50 million a year for 20 to 30 years to pay for drainage and flood control projects and ongoing maintenance. It would ask voters to create a stormwater authority with member cities that could include Colorado Springs, El Paso County, Manitou Springs, Green Mountain Falls, Monument and Palmer Lake.

An analysis by two University of Colorado at Colorado Springs finance and economics professors says that there are at least $250 million in high priority projects and a total of $700 million in needed drainage and flood control projects across the Fountain Creek Watershed, which is most of El Paso County.

The maintenance of effort issue was on the minds of city council members and county commissioners because in recent weeks the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority and Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach have been at odds over a transit funding issue related to what was promised to voters and what is legally required.

County commissioner Sallie Clark said the stormwater advisory group, whose proposal is mostly modeled after the PPRTA, must address the "elephant in the room" now or potentially end up in a conflict with a member city later.

"There needs to be a clear understanding of maintenance of effort and we need to make sure there is teeth in it," Clark said.

Colorado Springs is one of five cities and the county that belong to the transportation authority, which collects a 1 percent sales tax used for transportation and transit improvements in each of the cities and county.

PPRTA board members say when the campaign was rolled out in 2004, voters were promised that the tax money would be in addition to what cites already were spending on transportation and transit projects.

In 2004, Colorado Springs spent $5.7 million on transit. The plan was for the city to spend that much, or more, each year going forward, PPRTA board members say.

But Bach says that the annual transit budget was a goal. No one, he said in his March 21 letter to the PPRTA board, could have predicted the economic downturn and major disasters that hurt the city's general fund. Further, the maintenance of effort language was not in the ballot language therefore it is not binding, Bach said in his letter.

The city's transit budget was slashed in 2010. Since then, the city has slowly increased its annual spending on the bus program. But the city has not met the maintenance of effort - the $5.7 annual transit budget - for the past four years.

If voters approve a stormwater authority that entity could not force a city to maintain a certain annual budget for stormwater projects, said City Council member Joel Miller, who also is vice chairman of the PPRTA board. But the entity would control all of the collected stormwater fees.

"With the maintenance of effort, you cannot force a government to spend money," he said. "But you can say you (a city) won't get the money."

Dave Munger, who is co chairing the citizen's stormwater advisory group, said the ballot language still is being drafted and the group is discussing how enforcement of the maintenance of effort could be included. The group is conducting a poll now with a question about maintenance of effort to find out if voters like and understand the concept.

"We believe the public will resonate with this issue of maintenance of effort," Munger said. "They certainly did with PPRTA."

The stormwater advisory group expects to have proposed ballot language by July.

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