Colorado Springs Utilities' board voted Wednesday to recommend passing along the cost of watering city parks to residents.
The City Council, which consists of the same members, will vote next week on increasing water rates over the next two years to pay to water city parks and urban forests. Board members Don Knight, Andy Pico and Bill Murray opposed the move.
In recent years, the city has only budgeted enough money to water parks at a bare minimum, said Karen Palus, director of city Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services. The department's $3.3 million annual watering budget sits about $1.2 million short of where it should be, she said.
The entire department's budget this year amounts to about $15 million, well short of its nearly $20 million budget a decade ago.
"Our urban forest is in trouble," Palus told the board. "We have been barely watering for turf. Not watering for trees."
Boosting water rates slightly over the next two years can make up the shortfall, said Brian Whitehead, Utilities' system extensions manager. If the council approves the move, ratepayers will see their rates increase by about half of a percent by Jan. 1, 2019, and another half-percent in 2020.
Typical residential, commercial and industrial ratepayers will see average monthly increases of 34 cents, $1.13 and $14.77, respectively, in 2019, Whitehead said. Those increases will then double for 2020.
The boost will raise about $1.14 million next year and about $2.25 million in 2020, Whitehead said.
Some board members who opposed it questioned why ratepayers should pick up the city's slack. Knight asked why such an increase wouldn't be put to a vote of the people.
"You're asking the ratepayers for 68 cents a month, what are you afraid of?" Knight said.
But other members said a vote isn't required because the increase is minimal. In addition, the entire city benefits because the increase will be used for parks, which are highly valued by residents and visitors alike, they said.
"The parks have been a stepchild for a long time," said board member Richard Skorman. "We have a parks system that we should be ashamed of. We have an urban forest that's dying because we can't water."
But Pico and Knight expressed concern that Utilities ratepayers are serving as a cash cow for the city.
"Municipal bills need to be paid by the municipal budget and not transferred to Utilities," Pico said.
He questioned how long it will take before Utilities charges ratepayers higher electric rates to keep the city's streetlights on.
The last four water rate increases funded the $825 million Southern Delivery System, though originally seven increases had been predicted. Rates increased 12 percent in 2011 and 2012 and 10 percent in 2013 and 2014.
Similar requests came in the form of ballot measures 2A, 2C and 2D, all of which were approved by voters.
2A resurrected a controversial set of stormwater fees to free money in the city's general fund to hire more police officers and firefighters, among other things. The fees are expected to raise about $17 million a year.
2C increased the city's sales tax and dedicated $250 million, evenly split over five years, to repair the city's crumbling streets, curbs and gutters.
And 2D allowed the city to retain and spend $2.1 million in revenue that exceeded the cap set by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights to be used for park improvements and repairs.
But the rate increase is necessary to save the withering plant life around town, said Skorman and Susan Davies, the executive director of the Trails & Open Space Coalition.
"Brown grass and dying trees damage our quality of life," Davies said. "Here we have an opportunity to do something about that."
Other Front Range cities and utilities charge parks less money for water than Colorado Springs, the two said.
Here, the city is charged the same water rate as most businesses, Utilities spokeswoman Natalie Eckhart said.