A failed stormwater proposal could trigger legal action from Pueblo County and is expected to become a campaign issue in the race for Colorado Springs mayor.
Voters rejected a proposal Tuesday to create a regional stormwater authority that would have collected annual fees from property owners to pay for flood control projects in Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, Green Mountain Falls, Fountain and parts of El Paso County.
Now, the lack of a stormwater funding program has one Pueblo County commissioner wondering how promised flood control projects that affect his county will be paid for.
"It's not an option not to address flooding and stormwater issues," said Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, who was re-elected to a four-year term Tuesday. "Colorado Springs owes us legally. I expect Colorado Springs to find the money somewhere else."
Voters rejected a proposal that would have generated about $40 million a year for 20 years to pay for 114 flood control projects. Proponents ran a $200,000 campaign with billboard, television and radio advertisements. But it wasn't enough to sway opponents, who said the proposal lacked a guarantee that the new money, collected in fees, would be in addition to what each city and the county already spend on stormwater projects, a provision called "maintenance of effort."
"You give government more money to solve the problem and they spend the money on something else and the problem gets worse," said Steve Durham, who runs the group Citizens for Cost Effective Government, which spent about $25,000 on radio advertisements opposing the measure. "There is a lack of confidence created by city of Colorado Springs when they ceased their maintenance of effort."
Pace said by his estimation controlling the water flow in Fountain Creek was part of the deal Colorado Springs Utilities agreed to in 2009 when Pueblo signed off on permits needed for a projected $1 billion Southern Delivery System project to bring Arkansas River water stored in Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs.
When the permits for SDS were inked, Colorado Springs had a stormwater fee in place and a list of projects designed to head off floodwaters going south, Pace said. But the fee ended in 2011 and left Pueblo officials wondering if the promised flood control projects would be built. He had hoped voters would approve the regional stormwater fee proposal.
Pace said he will consult the county's attorney and look into legal action to ensure the agreements in the permits are followed.
"If Pueblo County believes that Colorado Springs has not lived up to its end of the bargain on the permit, we can take action to revoke the permit," Pace said.
Utilities officials said they are living up to the negotiated terms with Pueblo. They say the stormwater proposal that voters rejected this week was aimed at the backlog of flood control projects while the negotiated permits with Pueblo address future growth in the city.
City Councilman Merv Bennett, who chairs the Utilities Board, said Utilities has committed to spending $131 million to mitigate flooding and make improvements along Fountain Creek.
"We will continue to work closely with Pueblo County commissioners," Bennett said. "I will call the commissioners and hear their concerns so we can work to address those."
However, Bennett, who will be up for re-election in April in an at-large City Council seat, said he was disappointed the stormwater fee proposal failed. He hopes stormwater will be a 2015 campaign issue.
"It's such a critical issue for our city and for our neighbors," he said.
It may be too soon to start proposing alternative solutions, said Attorney General John Suthers, who announced in September that he intends to run for mayor of Colorado Springs.
"I think we have to be totally open-minded," he said. "We need to come back. This has to be dealt with but we need to go back through the process of consensus building."
Mayor Steve Bach issued a proclamation before the election detailing his opposition to the stormwater ballot proposal.
Among his concerns were the number of Colorado Springs representatives on the stormwater authority board; whether Colorado Springs would get to spend the money its residents contributed; and whether the authority could make changes to projects and spending without public input.
Bach did not return a phone call Wednesday seeking comment.
Suthers agreed that stormwater will become an election issue and expects it to be discussed.
He believes the stormwater proposal was rejected because there was "a failure of collaborative leadership."
"You had a group of incredibly hard-working citizens that went to work on this for two years, and they had a lot of public hearings and they fashioned a proposal that took into account what they heard," he said. "Then along comes the mayor, who had every opportunity to participate in this process, and he did not participate in a meaningful fashion."
Suthers declined to comment on how the lack of a stormwater program affects Pueblo and the permits related to the SDS project.
"This might involve potential litigation that Colorado Springs might be involved in," he said.
El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen, who was on the stormwater task force that brought the issue to the ballot, said the group will talk with voters about what they did not like in the proposal.
"Forty-six percent of the voters believed in our plan," she said. "That's a great place to start."
Lathen was the first to announce her intention to run for Colorado Springs mayor, and said she expects stormwater to be a campaign issue.
"Now, we go back to the drawing board and figure out what is going to be successful," she said.
"This is too important to let go."
Contact Monica Mendoza: 636-0187
Blog: City Hallways