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Point/Counterpoint: Does Colorado Springs need a dedicated stormwater fee?

By: John Suthers and Laura Carno
August 12, 2017 Updated: August 13, 2017 at 10:59 am
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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
 

John Suthers

Colorado Springs will be 150 years old in 2021. Eighty percent of our population growth occurred in the past 50 years. Unfortunately, our stormwater infrastructure has not kept pace.

The inadequacy of our system became painfully apparent in flooding incidents in the 1990s, including one that caused 68 million gallons of raw sewage to spill into Fountain Creek. That calamity caused the City Council to do what most major cities in America have done: create a stormwater enterprise and collect a service fee to pay for stormwater infrastructure, maintenance and operations.

But in 2009, Doug Bruce led a campaign against the fee, calling it a "rain tax," and the council eliminated the fee on a 5-4 vote in December 2009. The inadequate stormwater spending that followed led to major legal problems for Colorado Springs.

In 2008, Colorado Springs Utilities secured a 1041 permit to build the Southern Delivery System (SDS) across Pueblo County. SDS is an $825 million system that pumps water from Pueblo Reservoir and will supply our city's water needs for the next century.

To get the 1041 permit, the city promised to maintain a viable stormwater program. But the following year, the city eliminated the stormwater fee and drastically reduced stormwater spending. Pueblo alleged this violated the 1041 permit and sought to prevent SDS from going online in April 2016.

The city and Utilities resolved this legal dispute by agreeing to spend $460 million on our stormwater program over the next 20 years, essentially what would have been spent if the stormwater fee were still in place. SDS went online as scheduled.

In 2013 and 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted audits of our stormwater system. The audits found that the city was in violation of its MS-4 permit. Our stormwater flows into Fountain Creek, the Arkansas River, Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. We are obligated under our MS-4 permit to mitigate water pollution before it enters the interstate river system.

The EPA and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment have sued Colorado Springs in federal court for violation of our MS-4 permit. A chief complaint is that we do not have a dedicated revenue source to ensure adequate future stormwater spending.

The bottom line is that Colorado Springs is now legally obligated to spend an average of $20 million per year over the next 20 years on its stormwater program, and we do not have dedicated stormwater funding. That means we would have to meet these legal obligations through the expenditure of general funds. There is no way that can be done without serious impact on police, fire and other essential city services.

As an example, Colorado Springs has 14 police officers per 10,000 people. That is far below the average for a city our size and is adversely impacting our response times to critical incidents. We want to maintain an average response time of 8 minutes for critical calls, but our staffing levels have caused the average to increase to about 12 minutes. We need to hire 100-120 police officers over the next several years at an annual cost of $10 million to $12 million.

Our Fire Department staffing is below pre-recession levels, and we need to be vigilant to ensure adequate response times there as well.

Imposing a flat rate $5 per month fee for residential units and a $30 per month per acre fee for nonresidential development will initially raise $17 million to $18 million per year to be used exclusively for our stormwater program. But that will allow us to use a comparable amount of general fund for essential services like police and fire.

While cities in Colorado don't have to ask voters to impose a stormwater fee, given the history described above, the council and I believe it's appropriate to do so.

It's time for Colorado Springs to ensure we have adequate stormwater funding to meet our legal obligations, enhance our waterways and protect the health and safety of our citizens.

 

Laura Carno

Soon after John Suthers became mayor in 2015, he persuaded voters to approve Issue 2C, a $50 million annual "pothole" tax with the promise that he would use general fund money - then being spent on roads - to handle stormwater management. Now, he's changed his mind.

The mayor wants to re-establish the stormwater enterprise with a new fee, estimated to initially raise $17 million per year. The voters have twice before rejected this idea. It comes with no sunset provision, and the city can increase the fee without voter approval.

Although all properties contribute to stormwater runoff - including vacant land - homeowners, renters, businesses and nonprofits such as churches will bear the burden, while vacant land owned by developers is excluded from the new fee.

This is Suthers' sixth fee/tax initiative in just two years.

In addition to Issue 2C, the mayor has previously proposed that Tabor overages be kept by the city; an increased cable TV franchise fee that will likely be passed along to subscribers; an increased Lodgers and Auto Rental Tax (LART); and an increased Colorado Springs Utilities' Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) to the city, likely resulting in utility rate increases. All told, these four increases could add $20 million to $30 million annually to city coffers. Plus, the city's 2017 sales and use tax, excluding 2C, is on track to be up $18 million over last year.

Although the latest ballot language includes the phrase "without raising taxes," this is misleading. Whatever the legal construct of fees vs. taxes, the stormwater fee takes more money from the pockets of hard-working taxpayers. And we have yet to see Suthers offer efficiencies elsewhere in the city budget that could redirect money to stormwater.

Of course, our stormwater infrastructure needs to be paid for, and we should not kick the can down the road. Colorado Springs has record revenues with a current annual budget of $494 million. Why can't stormwater be handled within that budget, plus all the other new revenue sources described above? And why is there no stated plan for how the re-established stormwater enterprise will operate?

A recent poll has revealed that the stormwater ballot measure lacks strong support. To counter that, the mayor is now saying that the stormwater fee is needed, in part, to pay for more police officers. If that is the case, why not just ask the voters to raise the existing Public Safety Sales Tax (PSST) instead of lumping police in with stormwater? That is what PSST was intended for.

Although the majority on the City Council will likely rush this to the November ballot, Council members Don Knight, Andres Pico and Bill Murray believe that this proposal creates inequities and does not allow time for a robust community discussion. One council member even described this latest attempt at separating you from your money as "too much too soon" after the 2C pothole tax and the retention of TABOR overages.

The mayor has simply not made a reasonable case to take more of taxpayers' hard earned money. Let's say "NO!" to the proposed stormwater tax.

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John Suthers is the mayor of Colorado Springs. Laura Carno is the founder of I Am Created Equal and ran a campaign against 2015 Ballot Issue 2C. She blogs at LauraCarno.com.

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