A set of controversial stormwater fees is the key to financial stability for the city and the solution to a dire shortage of first responders, Mayor John Suthers has said for months.
Voters on Tuesday decided they believed him and approved the fees - the city's third crack at the issue - which will help Colorado Springs hire more police officers and firefighters and potentially settle an ongoing lawsuit with state and federal governments, Suthers said.
"Excuse the pun, but this really is a watershed moment for our city," Suthers said, reacting to election results.
Preliminary vote counts from El Paso County showed 54 percent approved the fees, which appeared on the ballot as Issue 2A, while 46 percent voted against them.
The issue was admittedly a "difficult sell" because it's not "sexy," Suthers said. But due to a coordinated campaign effort, city leaders are now "working together to build a city that matches our scenery." The fees will charge homeowners $5 a month and nonresidential property owners $30 per acre each month. They will last 20 years and are expected to raise as much as $18 million a year.
The new bills won't show up until July 2018, which allows time to establish precisely how the system will work. Colorado Springs Utilities is expected to handle the residential properties by adding the $5 fees to existing utility bills, said Travis Easton, public works director. The city will then bill nonresidential property owners.
The fees can only be spent on 71 stormwater projects within the city, but they will free money in the city's general fund that was already allocated for that work.
Suthers said Tuesday night he'll submit an amended 2018 budget for the city this week that adds 20 new police officers, eight firefighters and two additional fire department positions by the end of next year.
The 71 projects aim to curb the amount of sediment and hazardous materials draining downstream and to allay damaging flood waters that might otherwise rush to Pueblo County. They're a part of a $460 million, 20-year agreement the city entered into with Pueblo County in April 2016. The agreement requires the city to make annual investments in the stormwater projects, and the investments increase every five years and will average $20 million over the life of the agreement. They currently sit at $17 million a year.
Not only are the fees expected to help the city's pocketbook, but they might also help in a lawsuit - filed by the Department of Justice last year on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency - addressing contaminated stormwater runoff affecting downstream communities. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District have joined as plaintiffs.
Suthers, former Colorado attorney general, said creating a dedicated funding source for the city's stormwater obligations is a proactive way to keep future judgments against the city low. The fees certainly can't hurt the city's case, he said.
While 2A's approval might help pay for the city's agreement with Pueblo County and avert the lawsuit, those two items might cause the fees to increase. According to the ballot language, the city can raise the fees, if ordered to do so by a judge, to come into compliance with state and federal laws or to abide by any intergovernmental agreements preceding June 1, 2016.
Councilman Bill Murray, who opposed 2A, said he expects the lawsuit to result in a costly judgment against the city, which would then be passed on to property owners through fee increases.
But Suthers and City Council President Richard Skorman have said increases are unlikely and would be minimal if they came to pass.
Tuesday's vote marks the second time the city imposed a set of stormwater fees and the third time the topic has been introduced to local residents.
The City Council enacted a set of stormwater fees for the city in 2005. The move was unpopular with the public and charged property owners based on the amount of impervious surface they owned.
The public's distaste for the fees came to a head in 2009, in part due to an opposition campaign by anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce, who wrote the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR). During that campaign Bruce coined the term "rain tax" in reference to the fees. Ultimately the Council deactivated the city's stormwater enterprise fund that year.
And in 2014 El Paso County voters shot down another attempt to impose stormwater fees, this time as a regional system. Again Bruce opposed the move, publishing dissenting opinions online and on fliers. The move was also opposed by then-Mayor Steve Bach, in contrast with the Council's support. Many current Council members have blamed that friction as a contributing factor to the issue's failure.
During this year's election, Bruce and his fliers were joined by anti-tax activist Laura Carno, who was chief of staff for Bach's mayoral campaign. Carno's opposition campaign raised just $35,635 compared to the $399,443 raised by the supporting campaign run by the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC.
Carno said she's disappointed in the results, but pleased the vote was so close. She plans to track how the fees are administered to make sure properties are treated equally.
"This isn't government money, this is taxpayers' money and they have a right to demand of the city good value," Carno said.
In the meantime, Skorman said he might not stop smiling for a week because 2A passed. He even expects the smile to last through a city budget markup session on Thursday.