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Proposed Colorado Springs stormwater fee coming into focus

August 2, 2017 Updated: August 4, 2017 at 10:33 am
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Jon Bowman, left, and his brother Matt Bowman from A-1 Barricade and Sign, Inc. install an erosion barrier along Fountain Creek Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009, as part of the three million dollar Stormwater Enterprise project. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the proposed stormwater fees. Prices provided by the mayor's spokeswoman were erroneous.

With the deadline approaching for Colorado Springs to finalize a proposed stormwater fee on the county's November ballot, details about who and how much would be charged are becoming clearer.

Mayor John Suthers announced his goal of resurrecting the fee in June. While he has support from the majority of City Council members, some have raised concerns. If passed, the fee would raise an estimated $17 million annually for stormwater costs, freeing up general fund money that Suthers said he would like to use to hire more police officers and updating the city's aging vehicle fleet.

In its current form, the proposed fee would charge residential
properties a flat rate of about $5 each month while all non-residential properties would be charged $30 each month for every acre of impervious surface.

Those details are subject to change, however.

The council has just over a month to approve the official language for the November ballot. In that time, the council has two regularly scheduled meetings, but could also meet in special session.

Councilman Bill Murray said the short timeline and lack of details were frustrating. As of Wednesday afternoon, he said he had not seen specific language on the proposed fee.

"I'm not going to vote for anything I haven't seen," Murray said. "The devil is in the details."

Councilman Don Knight had a similar concern.

"If they show it to us for the first time and I'm asked to vote on it the next day, I'm going to have a lot of hesitation," Knight said.

The city previously imposed a stormwater fee in 2005 without a public vote. Suthers and Council President Richard Skorman agree the move was unpopular with the public and the stormwater enterprise was defunded by the council in 2009.

"I'm glad we're going to ask the voters' permission this time," Skorman said. "Last time I was on the council we just imposed the fee and people were upset. They wanted to be able to weigh in."

"The one we had before was more complicated and a lot more burdensome," he added.

Councilman Andy Pico said he opposes a vote, citing the public sentiment that led to the fee's elimination in 2009.

"I think the voters already told us no," Pico wrote in an email.

In a recent poll conducted by Magellan Strategies, 51 percent of the 475 people polled said they would support the fee after they were offered a sample of the proposed ballot question. That percentage rose after the people being polled were given more information about the issue.

Suthers said another poll is being conducted.

Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler said she viewed the first poll's results were evenly mixed and she wants to see the new poll's results.

Gaebler said she would like to see the community get behind the fee, but if Suthers "is going to push forward no matter what" then she will vote to put the fee on the ballot.

"If he's bound and determined then I will support him," Gaebler said.

Councilwoman Yolanda Avila said she supports putting the fee to a vote. Recently she heard a complaint from one businessman who said he paid more than $25,000 when the stormwater fee was originally in place. He received quarterly bills which were expensive and cumbersome, she said.

With the original fee, single family residences paid a maximum of $40.95 a quarter; commercial, industrial and government buildings paid a maximum of $2,760; and nonprofits and educational buildings paid a maximum of $517.50.

The new fee would be less expensive and easier to handle, Avila said.

The flat rate for individual residences will be added to monthly bills, Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Jerry Forte said. The rate does not differentiate by the size of a house.

That might damage its chances of succeeding, Knight said.

"It opens up the argument ... a retired couple on a fixed income and a 5,000 square foot lot is going to be paying the same amount of money as a rich, dual income couple, millionaires, on a 5-acre lot," he said. "I think that is going to be one of the major arguments that could lead to its downfall."

That billing process is still subject to the approval of the Utilities Board, Forte said.

The city will bill everyone else,Suthers said.

If the new fee makes it on to the November ballot and is approved by voters, it will go into effect in July 2018, Suthers said. If approved, the fee would last for 20 years, coinciding with the city's intergovernmental agreement with Pueblo for the Southern Delivery System, Suthers said. The council would not be able to raise the rates unless required to do so to meet the requirements of the agreement with Pueblo or unless a court orders them to do so.

The council has until Sept. 8 to approve an ordinance which revamps the city's existing stormwater enterprise and to approve the official language for the November ballot.

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