Mayor John Suthers says he'll ask City Council to refer a question to the April 4 city election ballot seeking to retain excess revenue collected in 2016 and 2017 that's subject to limits imposed by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.
But that sum totaling several million dollars, which would be funneled to stormwater needs, is only a short-term fix for the city's burgeoning drainage needs, Suthers says via email.
"Colorado Springs needs a dedicated revenue stream to fund its stormwater program," he says. "To proceed without one over a significant period of time would put too much pressure on the general fund to the detriment of public safety and other priorities."
Discussion among Council members is swirling around the idea of simply imposing a fee or taking a measure to voters. But a stormwater-fee measure won't be on the April ballot, according to Council President Merv Bennett, and not on the November ballot either.
And there seems to be little appetite for a fee from several other council members consulted for this story.
The city has historically ignored the astronomically expensive problems with its faulty drainage system. That inaction led the Environmental Protection Agency to sue the city this fall, seeking compliance with the Clean Water Act, despite the city's recent agreement with Pueblo County to spend $460 million over the next 20 years on stormwater projects and maintenance from the tax-supported general fund and Colorado Springs Utilities.
Meanwhile, that level of spending is putting a crimp on other budgetary needs, notably raises for police officers and firefighters who find their salaries are growing less competitive with similar-sized cities.
Suthers says that while a fee is necessary at some point, the city must overcome some obstacles before it asks for or imposes one.
Bill Murray is the only city councilor who's expressed public support for asking voters for a stormwater fee in the April election. One of three at-large councilors not facing reelection this year, Murray says a measure makes sense in light of the backlash in 2009 after Council acted unilaterally to impose stormwater fees in 2007. (Back then, voters approved a measure intended to make the fees illegal. Though the actual legal implications of that measure were debated, Council did end the fees, citing public will.)
Moreover, a 2013 SpringsUnigroup survey of 1,400 respondents showed that 71 percent of Colorado Springs residents think stormwater control is important and would support a drainage tax. Of course, voters rejected a regional stormwater tax — which then-Mayor Steve Bach publicly opposed — in the November 2014 election.
Still, Murray says he will address Council soon regarding the issue.
"My reasoning was that if we will have to do it anyway, it would be important to get the public's buy-in of the process," he says in an email, adding that if both Council and mayor support it, a measure could prevail.
"The argument is whether the public wants to handle stormwater or do they want an imposed (EPA/etc) stormwater mandate," Murray adds, referring to possible penalties and/or spending requirements a federal judge could impose in the Clean Water Act lawsuit.
But Bennett says there's no will on Council to propose a ballot measure right now, or in November 2017 when the city would have to share the cost of an election. As to whether Council might see fit to adopt the fee on its own authority, Bennett says, "I'm not going to say that couldn't be a consideration in the future, but that dialogue is not active right now."
Councilor Andy Pico is similarly opposed to a ballot measure and imposing fees at the moment.
"No way in the lower regions of eternal fire!!" he says by email. Urged to elaborate, Pico notes voters already have spoken recently on stormwater fees, leading the city to scrounge in the existing budget to fund the agreement with Pueblo County. He also points to recent voter approval of 2C, a tax for road work, saying the city shouldn't follow up with another plea for money.
"I do not think it at all appropriate to ask the voters again for another fee," he says. "And I feel it would be a breach of faith to enact such a fee without voter approval even though Council has that authority under the state Constitution."
Councilor Helen Collins reports that reviving the stormwater fee has been a topic at a couple of Council lunches and one executive session. "It's obvious the mayor wants Council to take the handle on placing the issue on the ballot," Collins says in an email, adding that proponents point out that "every other city has the stormwater tax so we should too."
Collins strongly opposes a stormwater fee, whether voter or Council approved, and adds that the city parks department is preparing arguments for an April ballot measure that would seek a .1 or .2 percent sales tax hike to fund park maintenance.
"This could be a good thing," Collins chides. "If you put too many tax increases on the ballot, folks usually vote no."
But Suthers isn't ready to pull the trigger just yet. "Before asking the Council to enact a fee or the voters to create a dedicated funding stream, I believe we need to be able to assure our citizens that the amount raised will resolve stormwater issues for the long run," he says.
That's hard to pinpoint right now because of the pending EPA lawsuit. In addition, Suthers wants to be able to tell voters how money freed up by a drainage fee would be spent.
The mayor is laying the groundwork: He's directing the city attorney, public works and city finance to research stormwater fees elsewhere, propose a fee structure, and cap the size of fees.
"When the litigation is resolved," Suthers says, "the Council and I would then be in a position to determine the best means to pursue a dedicated revenue stream for stormwater."
Colorado Springs has a long history of attempts to deal with its drainage system. So far, none have really worked out:
1997: Citizen stormwater group studying the city's needs recommends City Council enact a fee, because a ballot measure would be defeated.
April 2001: Voters reject a ballot measure seeking to raise the city sales tax by .9 percent — which would have brought in $758 million over 12 years — to fund public safety, roads, drainage and parks.
Nov. 2001: Given a menu of tax increase/debt options on their ballot that included stormwater funding, voters reject all choices except for a .4 percent sales tax increase to fund public safety. The vote comes two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks claim the lives of dozens of firefighters and police officers. Among the rejected choices is issuing debt of $37.8 million to fund drainage projects.
2005: Council establishes the Stormwater Enterprise without voter approval.
2006: Council adopts a fee structure that imposes stormwater fees on all property owners, including nonprofits and churches, based on size of impervious surface.
2007: The city begins billing property owners for stormwater fees.
April 2009: Pueblo County approves a 1041 construction permit for the city's Southern Delivery System water pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs. Part of the agreement hinges on the city's vow to control runoff that empties into Fountain Creek.
November 2009: Voters adopt Issue 300, which bars the city from receiving money from enterprises and paying money to enterprises. The "vote yes" campaign targets the "rain tax," aka the Stormwater Enterprise.
December 2009: Council defunds the Stormwater Enterprise, irking Pueblo County, but doesn't abolish the enterprise.
2013: EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) issue a scathing report showing numerous violations of the city's federal permit that allows it to discharge stormwater into state and federal waterways.
November 2014: A citizen-based group's effort culminates in a ballot measure aiming to establish the Pikes Peak Regional Drainage Authority and impose fees on property owners. Then-Mayor Steve Bach opposes the measure, which fails by a 53-47 percent margin.
August 2015: EPA and CDPHE issue a second report noting the city continues to violate its discharge permit. Pueblo County threatens to reopen the 1041 permit for SDS — jeopardizing the future of the project — due to the city's lack of funding of stormwater projects.
Mid-April 2016: Pueblo County and Colorado Springs strike a 20-year intergovernmental agreement that requires the city to spend $460 million to fix the city's drainage problems and maintain its system, an average of $23 million annually.
April 27, 2016: Colorado Springs activates the SDS pipeline.
Nov. 9, 2016: The federal government sues Colorado Springs, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and the Colorado Water Quality Control Act.