Stormwater management might be one of the duller functions of municipal government, but in Colorado Springs, it's also an explosive political issue.
Thus, few politicians shed tears in 2011, when the entire matter was carted off to be dealt with in a lengthy regional planning process, after multiple ham-fisted attempts to fund it.
But on March 21, Mayor Steve Bach suddenly popped the stormwater question during a meeting with City Council. Following a presentation by City Attorney Chris Melcher, the mayor made clear that he wanted city staff, and Councilors (who also sit as the board of Colorado Springs Utilities) to address the issue swiftly — likely by ditching that regional plan and instead throwing some of the $15 million annual maintenance backlog onto Utilities' shoulders. That would mean citizens paying for at least some stormwater services through their Utilities bills.
"It's a $1.2 billion-a-year budget — you'd hope there'd be some money there," the mayor said of Utilities. "...It's going to have to be, I think, a shared solution [between the city and Utilities]."
Apparently, some Councilors are ready to jump on the bandwagon.
"I like the idea of a regional solution," Councilor Merv Bennett said at the March 21 meeting, "but this is our problem right now."
History, however, would suggest that off-loading stormwater on Utilities would hardly be popular. Important as stormwater management is, forcing citizens to pay for it, without a vote, has been catastrophic. What's more, experts say that stormwater management is often ineffective unless tackled regionally.
Here's the twist: Some Councilors suspect the mayor has ulterior motives for breathing new life into this despised problem. Rumors persist that a secretive group of business leaders is crafting a ballot issue that would give the mayor control over Utilities, stripping Council of the job. What better way to gain public support for that, than to strap Council with a big, controversial decision?
A look back
For around two decades, Colorado Springs has known it had a problem.
Stormwater, which ideally would be budgeted at $13 million to $15 million annually for maintenance alone, has been discussed to death by city leaders and citizens. Taxpayers turned down stormwater funding twice, once in a package with other spending, and individually on a menu of items.
Then, in 2005, after a lengthy public process and on a citizens group's advice, Council created the Stormwater Enterprise. The new entity didn't need a tax to support it, and therefore didn't need voter approval. It would be supported by fees.
In 2007, the bills started rolling in, and the outcry began. Many said the "fees" were really taxes, and that the city government had betrayed them. Plenty of people refused to pay. Then, in November 2009, anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce convinced voters to pass his Issue 300, which he said would "end the rain tax."
The Stormwater Enterprise shut down at the end of 2009. To date, many citizens still have not paid their "fees."
Oddly, many voters insist that Council should have persisted in asking them to fund stormwater through a tax, and that they would have been agreeable. Others doubt that.
"The community wouldn't have supported it because the tax initiatives that have passed in this community in the past 15 years are glamorous and high-profile," former Stormwater Advisory Committee chairman Tom Harold tells the Indy. "Stormwater dealt with ditches and drains that aren't glamorous and nobody cares about. So I think if it was put up as a tax, people would be like, 'No.'"
Nevertheless, stormwater needs funding. During storms, runoff from roofs, streets, parking lots and other impermeable surfaces rushes into drainage-ways, canals and creeks. The current's force tears at bridges' foundations, erodes banks where homes and businesses sit, and sends polluted, sediment-choked water downstream. In past years, fast-moving currents have also led to drowning deaths of local children.
Currently, about $2 million in the city budget is dedicated to stormwater. That's just enough to keep the Springs out of trouble with the federal government, which can charge fines of up to $25,000 per day for violations of its complicated permit. The permit outlines everything from drainage requirements at new developments to water quality.
Unfortunately, there's not enough budget money these days to pay for needed system maintenance or capital improvement projects. The city has identified $38 million in high-priority projects and $500 million in backlogged projects.
Acting City Engineer Mike Chaves explains that has consequences. A bridge over Sand Creek on Platte Avenue, for instance, needs four or five "drop structures," contraptions that slow down the water flow and protect infrastructure. But with budgets tight, only one drop structure was built in 2009. Last September, a big storm sent water shooting down the creek, and the single drop structure had to handle all the flow. It ended up suffering heavy damage and needs to be repaired.
All this could spell trouble for Southern Delivery System. After years of negotiations, Utilities finally got approval last spring to build the $880 million project, which will pump water from Pueblo to Colorado Springs. But a major permit requires that Colorado Springs manage its stormwater, ensuring that peak flows down Fountain Creek don't exceed historic flood levels.
This point is not lost on Melcher.
During his March 21 presentation to Council and the mayor, Melcher noted that the city had five options for funding stormwater, including asking citizens for a tax increase. But he was quick to point out that Utilities has a vested interest: satisfying the permits that allow SDS to move toward completion.
Councilors Angela Dougan and Tim Leigh feel that asking Utilities to share the cost is a good option, and that Utilities should be able to do that without raising rates. But Utilities spokesperson Steve Berry says that isn't realistic.
"It's critical we have a conversation with the public, because no matter which way you go, there's some impact on the taxpayer, or in this case a rate-payer," he says. "You know, there's no such thing as suddenly taking a full-service utility and taking funds from running a very large wastewater system or electric system, or water, or gas, and suddenly finding money to run a stormwater utility."
Besides, Berry says, stormwater needs to be dealt with regionally. Others agree.
"They're only looking at it as a city issue; it's a regional issue, says County Commissioner Darryl Glenn. "We need to be at the table."
No one is as disappointed as Larry Small, former vice mayor and current executive director of the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District, which was formed in April 2009 and functions like a small government with powers over the waterway.
His organization expects results of a $45,000 Summit Economics study in late April. Funded in part by Utilities and El Paso County, the study will give top options for funding and managing stormwater operations regionally, including a two-county ballot issue asking for a tax to support stormwater management. The district doesn't need any approvals to put such an issue on the ballot.
Small, and other experts like Harold, say the issue needs to be tackled regionally because poor mitigation upstream from Colorado Springs, in Monument for instance, could wreak havoc on the city system no matter how well-maintained it is. He adds that shoving responsibility to Utilities might violate Bruce's old Issue 300, which prohibited the mingling of funds between the city and its enterprises.
"The fact of the matter," Small says, "is that it's city infrastructure that's the problem. It's not really Utilities infrastructure."
Some Councilors are looking at the mayor's sudden proposal with caution, and even suspicion — especially given those rumors about a ballot proposal to change the City Charter.
Public leaders of the Mayor Project campaign of 2010, who led the successful measure to switch to a "strong-mayor" form of government, have said they feel that further charter changes are unnecessary. But both City Council President Scott Hente and President Pro Tem Jan Martin have nonetheless heard that a ballot proposal might be in the works, probably for April 2013.
"Steve Bach has actually been very open with telling people that he's going to get the Council replaced, and that he'll have Utilities before next year," Martin says.
The Indy tried to reach the mayor to ask him about this, but was not able to schedule an interview.
Says Martin, "I feel like we're constantly playing defense. They've got a grand plan that they're not sharing with anybody."
Hente has similar concerns, saying that Council getting into the muck on a stormwater debate might be enough to convince voters that the mayor, not Council, ought to be in charge of Utilities.
"What I worry about is this would be an attempt to use Colorado Springs Utilities and its board as a scapegoat," Hente says. "And I would worry about that for future boards and Councils."