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Opponents of Colorado Springs stormwater fees financially outmatched but still making an argument

October 30, 2017 Updated: October 30, 2017 at 6:06 pm
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FILE - Work was underway Monday, December 12, 2016 on the first portion of a three-phase stormwater project on a tributary of Monument Creek. The project is intended to stop erosion and extensive sediment from entering Monument Creek where it empties onto the United States Air Force Academy. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

With a pocketbook less than one-tenth as deep as her competition, conservative political activist Laura Carno says she's in familiar territory.

Her organization, springstaxpayers.com, has raised $35,365 to date in its campaign against stormwater fees proposed for Colorado Springs, which appear on El Paso County's Nov. 7 ballot as Issue 2A.

The campaign supporting the fees, managed by the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, has raised more than $360,997.

"I'm accustomed to being the underdog," Carno said.

Her ads appear online and over local radio waves. She blasts 2A, which would charge homeowners $5 a month and nonresidential property owners $30 a month over the next 20 years, as the city's failure to manage its priorities.

If passed, the fees are expected to raise $17 million a year, freeing that amount in the city's general fund, which Mayor John Suthers said he wants to spend hiring new police officers and firefighters.

But the city's general fund is increasing year to year, Carno said. And the budget proposed for 2018 allows for 17 new positions, none of which are police officers or firefighters. Instead, the city has prioritized projects such as the new Pikes Peak Summit House, which is expected to cost as much as $30 million and won't be finished until 2020.

"It would be lovely," she said of the project. "The renditions look beautiful, but are they more important than police or stormwater?"

Suthers argues his priorities are in the right place and without voter approval of 2A, the city's parks will likely take a hit. While he still wants to hire a few officers next year, Suthers said if 2A passes, he will propose adding up to 20, alongside eight firefighters.

Carno is joined by three City Council members - Don Knight, Bill Murray and Andy Pico - in her opposition to 2A. She is quick to note that all three serve on the city's budget committee, though Suthers said he and the remaining council members also understand the budget well.

Knight said he doesn't want to burden residents and businesses with fees when the general fund has enough money to support the city's stormwater obligations.

But Suthers said the fees would serve another purpose, reflecting positively on the city as it defends itself from a state and federal lawsuit addressing contaminated stormwater runoff affecting downstream communities.

A well-prioritized budget with specific general fund allocations for stormwater obligations would yield the same result, Carno argued.

She said she has to be judicious with her own budget and make "the most out of small bits of money."

The largest contribution to her campaign is a $15,000 grant from Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit organization based in Virginia and backed by billionares David and Charles Koch. But that check came Thursday, so to say the opposition campaign is "Koch funded" would be inaccurate, Carno said.

The second largest donation, $13,000, came from one of Carno's other organizations, I Am Created Equal. That was used as seed money to get the campaign going, she said.

One of Carno's recent creations is a "jibjab" on her website, featuring cartoon likenesses of Suthers and former President Bill Clinton and headlined "Who's the bigger taxaholic? Bill Clinton or Mayor John Suthers?"

"You have to admit that's funny, right?" she said.

Bits like that are inexpensive and frequently shared for their entertainment value, Carno said. It's a cost-effective way to fight the expensive, glossy mailers sent out by the Chamber's campaign.

If Carno has one style, anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce, who also opposes 2A, has another.

Bruce printed fliers at his own expense, decrying 2A and a $42 million mill levy override proposal for School District 11. He distributes them during public appearances and said he's recruited about 10 others to hand them out too.

But Bruce is known for his brash and antagonistic demeanor. At a panel earlier this month, Carno and Suthers faced off about 2A while Bruce and a D-11 representative debated the mill levy override. Bruce's comments drew harsh remarks from the audience; he argued with audience members until the moderator called the room to order.

Carno said Bruce has his own following, and "his style is sort of baked into the equation already," so any impact he might have on her own campaign is "negligible." But Murray said Bruce's involvement likely hurts the argument against 2A.

Bruce has repeatedly called 2A a "bait-and-switch" because the money raised by the fees would be spent on new police and firefighters rather than stormwater. But Suthers argues he has been transparent with his plans for the cash, which include hiring "100 to 120 police officers and additional firefighters" over the next five years.

"That priority will not change as long as I'm mayor," he said.

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