By JOHN HENRY
As with all divisive topics, everybody can agree that there is in fact an issue. Colorado Springs storm water management policies and projects have been neglected for years, leaving huge canals of unfiltered and unabated runoff to carve their way throughout the city.
Runoff becomes exacerbated along the sides of these ravines and property around the city is being damaged, and the system dramatically failed to divert increased runoff following the Waldo Canyon wildfires of 2014.
The fires filled Colorado Springs are with smoke, and the flames stripped all groundcover from the area. Without groundcover, flash flooding threatened and damaged the area. A functioning storm water management system would’ve prevented some of these issues, and Colorado Springs is now being given the opportunity to vote for a storm water measure on the ballot this fall.
Ballot initiative 2A would create a $5 fee for residential homes and a $30 fee for non-residential properties; it would generate $17 million a year for the next 20 years. This fund would go to the completion of 71 new projects around the area.
Proponents of the ballot measure see it as a much-needed fix and hope that by paying now to fix the infrastructure the city can save money in the long run. The fees would most likely be levied through Colorado Springs Utilities as part of a citizen’s water bill and would go to create a fund specifically designated to deal with issues of storm water management.
All but three city council members support the ballot measure. City Council President Richard Skorman has even appeared in campaign literature for the proposal. Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers is also strongly in favor of the proposal, to the extent that he has been accused of mishandling his office. Colorado Springs has laws that prohibit an elected official from using city resources to promote a ballot initiative, and some assert Suthers may have crossed the line by advocating for the bill’s passage during a State of the City address this past year.
Nonetheless, Suthers believes he is within the scope of his office and frames the issue as one of public safety. Currently Colorado Springs has no defined funding source for storm water management projects, so it allocates money from the general fund.
This money could be used in other ways. For example, Mayor Suthers claims that he would like to invest in more police officers and fire department officials with money from the general fund. Both the Colorado Springs Police department and Fire departments support the measure because they look forward to the additional resources. Other organizations supporting the bill.
Not everyone in Colorado Springs, however, agrees with the measure, and opposition comes from all sides of the political spectrum. All three members city council members that are part of the Colorado Springs budget committee are against the measure. They are joined by ex-council member Helen Collins.
Their concern is that the city will not use the money wisely, and they contend that there is already enough money within the city budget for both storm water management, and to increase funds for public safety.
Their chief concern however, is that the proposal does not come with many details, and it does not have a cap on storm water fees that could be imposed. The initial fees are relatively low, but the language of the article allows the fees to be raised in order to pay legal obligations, like those the city has to the EPA and the city of Pueblo.
Mayor Suthers contends that cost rises would be marginal, while others are skeptical. The lack of details in the proposal have scared off some, and its simplicity has scared off others. All residential properties regardless of size pay the same towards storm water management, though not all properties make the same contribution to the problem.
Adjusting the fee to match the size of a business or residence could be a logistical nightmare, but opponents say it would be more equitable. The initiative is targeted toward impervious surfaces which causes confusion in how it will apply to organizations with large green spaces such as a college campus, or even the city itself.
City officials say those rates will be negotiated because green spaces don’t contribute to the problem. Councilwoman Jill Gaebler opposed stating “nobody gets a pass.” Still others are concerned that the ballot initiative equates a handout to wealthy developers, as in many cases the developers are the cause of storm water issues.
The city gives out many waivers and takes on developers’ storm water drainage ponds and infrastructure, leaving the city to foot the bill. Environmental opponents want environmental assessments to be done for the 71 construction projects that the initiative would fund, and even though the Sierra Club supports the proposal, it did not stop a scathing editorial in the Colorado Springs Gazette. Pockets of opposition to the bill exist, but fewer organizations have taken a stand including the “Noon2A” campaign.
The issue of storm water management in Colorado Springs is as complex as it is pressing. In a tax-phobic town the mayor is using public safety to help sell the fee, but others are skeptical. The issue does not fall neatly along party lines and it is still too early to tell what the fate of ballot initiative 2A might be.