After months of debates, arguments and unanswered questions, the Colorado Springs City Council voted Tuesday to cement a set of proposed stormwater fees onto El Paso County's November ballot.
With Councilmen Don Knight, Bill Murray and Andy Pico in opposition, the council approved an ordinance revamping the city's existing code on stormwater fees alongside the official ballot language to be used. The council also approved a payment of $137,265 to hold the election. Knight and Pico opposed the payment.
The move is a win for Mayor John Suthers, who has fiercely advocated for the fees' resurrection since June. His true test, however, will come on Nov. 7, when voters will decide whether to follow through with the proposals and impose the fees on property owners once more.
Suthers addressed the council Tuesday afternoon and said he believes the time is right to ask voters to reinstate the stormwater enterprise fund, which was active from 2005 to 2009. Virtually every other major city in the country imposes some type of stormwater fee, but Colorado Springs meets those obligations with money from the general fund, he said.
Regarding stormwater fees, the city has "kicked the can down the road for far too long," Suthers said.
The city will have a difficult time meeting its public safety needs if it continues funding its stormwater obligations out of the general fund, he said.
Suthers told the Gazette he'll draft two city budgets for 2018. One will assume that voters shoot down the proposed fees. The other will include revenue from the fees. That contingent budget will likely include the hiring of 20 police officers and eight firefighters, Suthers said.
Because the fees would not start until July 2018, the city has until then to determine how they will be administered, if they're approved by voters. As the fees are proposed, residential property owners would be charged $5 every month, while nonresidential property owners would pay $30 per month for every acre of land they own. The fees would last for 20 years and are expected to raise an estimated $17 million annually.
Money from the fees will have to be spent on the city's stormwater obligations. Suthers has said he wants to spend the money that would be freed up in the general fund updating the city's aging vehicle fleet and hiring public safety employees.
How the fees will be issued to property owners and what happens if they go unpaid are among the questions yet to be answered in full.
The plan is for Colorado Springs Utilities to bill residential property owners by adding the fee to existing utility statements, Deputy City Attorney Thomas Florczak said. The city would then bill nonresidential property owners. Those details are not set in stone, however.
Knight and Murray have raised concerns about a lack of specificity regarding where the freed general fund money would be spent, despite Suthers' stated priorities.
Murray pointed to Suthers' plan to hire 20 police officers and eight firefighters. "Count it up. Where are the other millions going? We don't know," he said. "There are so many 'TBDs' in here. To be determined. . This process is not complete."
Pico has often said he doesn't believe the time is right to ask voters for more money.
Also Tuesday, during the public comment section of the meeting, several residents, business owners and lobbyists urged the council to add the sale of recreational marijuana in town onto the November ballot. Tax revenue generated from the sale of recreational pot would help with many of the issues facing the city, they said. In addition, they said, the move could put a dent in the city's robust black market for the drug.
City Clerk Sarah Johnson said placing a recreational marijuana issue on the November is still possible, but would require the council to call a special meeting; that's because the official ballot language would be due by Sept. 8 and no regular meetings are scheduled between now and then.
It appears unlikely the council would move to place a recreational marijuana issue on the November ballot. While a majority of members have said they support putting the issue to a vote, many of that majority have said they think a vote this year would be too soon. In addition, Suthers has vehemently opposed the notion.
In other action Tuesday, the City Council approved an emergency request for $450,000 to install security cameras at John Venezia Community Park.
Though reaction to the emergency request was mixed, only Councilwoman Yolanda Avila voted against it, citing concerns about inequity among the city's parks. While approving the request, Council President Richard Skorman, Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler and Councilman David Geislinger expressed similar concerns.
Venezia Park opened in July and has already seen about $80,000 in theft and vandalism damage, said Karen Palus, the city's director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services. Other city parks are also damaged regularly, but none have seen vandalism on such a consistent level.
Money for the request will be taken from a specific fund dedicated to new park projects, Palus said. So while other city amenities like Wildflower Park and Deerfield Hills Community Center could benefit from security cameras as well, they are not eligible for the funds.
"It smacks of so much privilege for the affluent areas of our city," Avila said. She called on her fellow council members to ensure equity in serving all of the city's parks.