Colorado Springs residents will decide in November whether to double a dedicated sales tax for trails, open space and parks and extend it through 2041.
A "yes" vote on the question would raise the dedicated tax from .1% to .2%, or up from about one cent to two cents on a $10 purchase. The increase would raise an additional $12 million a year, bringing total revenues from the tax up to about $22 million in 2022. If passed, it would bring total sales taxes in the city up to 8.3%.
A "no" vote on the question would leave the existing .1% tax in place through 2025.
If the tax passes, proponents say it could help the city tackle an estimated $270 million in backlogged projects, including raw land waiting to be turned into parks. Opponents say this is not the right time to ask for an increase and the city should look to the increasing general fund revenues for parks or increase the taxes tourists pay to rent hotel rooms and cars to meet the needs.
Another faction against the tax said that it does not properly earmark funding to open space acquisition and could erode the city's ability to buy land over time.
Mayor John Suthers said the city can't rely on its rising general fund revenues care for parks and open spaces in part because the city is facing pressing public safety needs and some of the money boosting the budget next year is one-time federal coronavirus relief funding.
The tax hike would provide money that is badly needed to develop more parks and open spaces, purchase more property and meet the growing needs of the city, he said.
"The burdens on our parks are so severe, we are not doing as good a job as we should maintaining them," he said.
The city also has 15 neighborhood parks and four community parks all waiting for development, a study found earlier this year.
If passed the tax would provide about $1.1 million for administration costs, or about 5% of the total, and $5.6 million in its first year for maintenance, or about 25% of the total tax collections, city spokeswoman Vanessa Zink said. The maintenance money could help the parks system make improvements that create savings over time, such as updating irrigation systems, proponents said.
The tax could also generate about $6.3 million for parks, $4.7 million for trails and $4.7 million for open space acquisition and development, such as constructing parking lots, Zink said. The ballot question designates how much must be spent in each category over the life of the tax. The city does not have to spend the designated percentages each year, she said.
The amount set aside for open space would be a lower percentage of overall spending than it is currently, but it would be a similar dollar figure in part because it would no longer have to cover open space stewardship costs, such as park ranger salaries, Zink said. The current .1% tax could generate $6.7 million for open space spending in 2022, but $2 million would be taken out of that number to cover stewardship costs, bringing the overall number back down to $4.7 million, she said.
Parks advocate Bruce Hamilton said he supports higher funding for parks but not at the expense of eroding how much money the city has to purchase open space over time. He is particularly concerned because the parks and recreation advisory board supported a simple solution meant to ensure the money set aside for open space would be spent on open space purchases or development, not maintenance. The City Council rejected that solution.
"I believe they are committed to purchasing open space. The question is how much and will they have money to do that for the next 20 years?" said Hamilton, who is with Cheyenne Central and working on the opposition campaign.
He said he would prefer to see the city come forward with a different, more focused sales tax for parks and keep the existing tax that supports open space acquisition in place.
Another opponent of the measure, Laura Carno, executive director of Springs Taxpayers, said now was not the time for an increase because many people are still financially recovering from the pandemic and facing increased costs for housing and many other goods. The city is also projecting healthy growth of its sales taxes into next year.
"If they city really felt like parks needed more money they could prioritize it within the city budget," she said.