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Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers congratulates parks director Karen Palus as early results of Ballot Issue 2B: Allow city to keep $7 million for parks is passing during a watch party at Phantom Canyon Brewing in Colorado Springs on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

Tuesday's election was just a warmup for trails and open space advocates in Colorado Spring.

A citywide ballot question, 2B, passed by a handy margin of more than 16,000 votes, allowing the city to retain $7 million in excess tax revenue to upgrade and refurbish the city’s trails and parks.

Now, Susan Davies is eyeing a broader goal for the city’s April 2021 election: renewing and increasing the city’s longstanding Trails, Open Space and Parks sales tax.

“This was sort of a batter’s practice,” said the executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition. “Let’s take a few swings and see how things go. And now it’s time to really strategize on how to make the real prize.”

“Seven million dollars is fantastic, but the city has tens of millions of dollars of unmet needs and we need to find a bigger solution,” Davies added.

Voters initially approved the sales tax, commonly known as TOPS, in 1997 after a failed attempt the year before. The measure charges a 1 cent tax for every $10 purchase and, in 2003, voters approved a long extension through 2025.

The 2021 election is attractive, Davies said, because if the measure fails, there’s still time to try again.

Plus, that year would tie in with the city’s 150th birthday, said Parks Director Karen Palus.

“There’s some good synergy,” Palus said. “In terms of the city being 150 years old and (the town’s founder, General) Palmer, his legacy was our parks.”

As it sits now, the tenth of a percent tax is the lowest of its kind on the Front Range, Davies said.

“It’s very small, but it’s better than not having one,” she said. “I would like to see us do what Denver did a year ago and go to 0.25%, which would put us in the middle of the pack.”

If that increase was approved, TOPS would raise an estimated $25 million a year, up from the current $9 million annually, Davies said.

Palus said she supports renewing the tax, but needs more information before backing an increase. A $150,000 study, to begin later this year, will document conditions throughout the city’s parks system, the cost to improve them and maintenance costs moving foward, she said.

“That will help us determine what the right configuration is in terms of funding,” Palus said.

City residents clearly favor investments in parks, trails and open spaces, Davies said.

Tuesday’s election reaffirmed that notion with tallies showing 2B with 57% support, according to unofficial results from the Secretary of State’s Office.

There was no organized opposition to the measure, according to finance data collected by the Colorado Springs City Clerk. Proponents raised just under  $5,000 in contributions, Davies said.

Rather than relying on cash, the campaign’s success was more of a grassroots effort, Davies said. The story of the city’s ageing and underfunded parks and trails was an easy one to share and it clearly resonated, she said.

“We welcomed the opportunity to say ‘Look, have you seen these warts? Do you know that we have these 42 sports courts that should be padlocked and these four are padlocked because they’re dangerous?’” Davies said.

The city’s department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services is nursing a $100 million maintenance backlog while its annual budget remains well below pre-recession levels.

The money from 2B will be split between the city’s historic parks: Antlers, Acacia and Alamo Square/Pioneers Museum. But millions more are also allotted for Monument Valley Park, Homestead, Mesa and Sand Creek Trails, Cottonwood Creek Community Park and the city’s cemeteries, among other places.

But so much more work remains, Davies said.

Currently, 60% of TOPS revenue can only be spent to buy open space, but upcoming renewal could change that ratio, Davies said. The length of the proposed extension is also something to be considered.

“That’s got to be a community conversation,” she said. “We just need to step back and look at what’s left to be done, where the public appetite is, too.”

Palus said the parks assessment, which should take between six and eight months to complete, will guide any possible changes to that ratio.

On Tuesday night, city voters also agreed to extend a tax for road improvements — question 2C — for another five years.

Passed with 65% of the vote, the second installment of 2C will be lower than the initial tax approved by voters in 2015 —  5.7 cents on every $10, down from 6.2 cents. That lower rate takes effect upon the expiration of the original tax on Dec. 31, 2020.

Much of that support likely stems from the visible improvements to the city's roads and other infrastructure paid for by the tax, said Public Works Director Travis Easton.

“Every quarter we’ve either been ahead of schedule or under budget or both,” Easton said.

It’s likely another extension for 2C will be out to voters in coming years, but for now, Easton said he’s focused on the task at hand.

“We want to take it in five-year increments at a time and focus on everything we have to do,” he said. “And if the mayor and council … decide to try to renew it then I just want to make sure that I’ve developed the case for them to do that.”

City streets slated for repairs and improvements over the next five years can be found at coloradosprings.gov/2c.

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