Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Regional transportation board calls on Colorado Springs to ante up to promise

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by monica mendoza monica.mendoza@gazette.com - Updated: March 13, 2014 at 6:12 am

Colorado Springs needs to live up to the funding promise it made to voters who approved the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority tax in 2004, the authority's board said.

For four years the city has fallen short in its promised transit budget by at least $1.8 million annually.

The PPRTA board - which includes three Colorado Springs City Council members - voted unanimously Wednesday to require the city to deliver a financial plan by June detailing how the city's general fund will achieve and sustain the promised transit budget of $5.7 million a year.

Voters from Colorado Springs, El Paso County, Manitou Springs and Green Mountain Falls approved a 1 percent sales tax to pay for transportation and transit improvements. They were promised the money would be an addition to the existing road, transit and maintenance budgets.

The member cities and the county signed an Intergovernmental Agreement that said the tax money would not replace their existing transportation and transit budgets.

Under the agreement, 50 percent of the tax collected is used for capital projects, 35 percent is used for maintenance and 10 percent is used for public transit, which the city of Colorado Springs operates for the region.

The PPRTA board planned to send a letter Thursday to Colorado Springs saying the city is not recognizing its promise to voters. The board cannot force the city to increase its transit budget, but it does control all of the PPRTA money, including the $10 million a year that goes to Colorado Springs to run the bus services, board members said.

Amy Lathen, the board's chairwoman and an El Paso County Commissioner, said it's fair for the board to call out the city on its budget shortfall.

"In this room we are the RTA and we represent the voters," she said. "I don't want to soft sell that we are not addressing a real issue - and this is a very real issue."

All of the other entities budgets and the Colorado Springs transportation and maintenance budgets meet the baselines established in 2004.

In 2004, Colorado Springs spent $5.7 million on transit - which would become the "baseline" amount expected to be spent every year. That amount increased for four years up to $9 million in 2008.

Then the economy tanked and the city's transit budget was slashed to $2.6 million in 2010. In the next four years, the city increased that budget each year. When averaged out, the city has met the baseline spending each year since 2004, Colorado Springs Chief Financial Officer Kara Skinner wrote in a recent letter to the PPRTA board. But the PPRTA board said averaging is not part of its finance methodology.

The city's transit budget increased from $3.7 million in 2013 to $3.8 million in 2014.

Mayor Steve Bach and the city's former chief of staff Laura Neumann touted the increase and said the city was happy to expand bus service in 2014, which includes restoring Sunday bus service and adding a route on Powers Boulevard to begin at the end of this month.

The PPRTA Citizen Advisory Committee, charged with reviewing the budgets of the member cities and county, and the PPRTA board didn't make much of stink over the city's declining transit budget in recent years, said Tom Harold, chairman of the citizen committee.

"When the economy had a downturn, and the city's transit budget was cut, we understood - it was hard times," Harold said. "We tolerated it. But now, year after year, there has been no effort to increase that budget."

This year the committee was irked when it received a Jan. 24 letter from Skinner calling the funding agreement between the city, county and other members "aspirational and non-binding."

"It was like, in your face, it's just an aspirational goal," Harold said. "We think its slap in face to voters and disrespectful to the CAC (Citizen Advisory Committee)."

A key concern is that if PPRTA continues to ignore Colorado Springs' transit budget that other member cities may feel inclined to let their budgets fall below the promised baselines, Harold said.

But Colorado Springs has made an effort since 2008 to increase the transit budget, said budget manager Charae Moore.

"The city has to prioritize its budget every year given very limited constraints and the many budget priorities that the city faces and has to balance its budget," Moore said. "The city is making - the mayor and the council are making the highest priority decisions."

PPRTA board members chewed over how forceful it should be with the city. The board's attorney confirmed, in an executive session, that the Intergovernmental Agreement that says PPRTA funding would not substitute existing budgets is not legally binding.

But the board said it needs to send the message that the cities participating in the PPRTA program made a promise to voters.

"One thing we have to deal with is credibility," said Joel Miller, PPRTA board vice chairman and Colorado Springs City Council member. "The PPRTA mantra is 'promises made, promises kept.' "

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