It took crumbling concrete drains, snapping sewage pipes and possibly the death of two boys this summer to convince City Council last week to approve a solution to the city's woeful flood control system.
Next fall, residents, businesses, government buildings and churches will start paying for more than $300 million in storm system repairs through a fee that will generate around $21 million a year. The average household will pay an estimated $7.50 a month.
The measure passed by a 7 to 2 vote. Several Council members rejected the idea that the fee, which will be calculated based on the number of square feet of impermeable surface on a property, constitutes a tax.
"It's not a tax," said Councilman Richard Skorman. "It's a utility ... it's a privilege we all enjoy, and we haven't paid for years."
Ignoring the problem
Indeed, for many years, Colorado Springs has ignored drainage problems. From 1997 until last year, the city budgeted no money for drainage repairs. This fall, in response to a $9 million budget shortfall, it cut its $4.7 million emergency road and drainage repair budget by more than half.
As a result, drains, channels and embankments designed to buttress roads and efficiently carry water from flood-prone areas lie dilapidated, contributing to deluged basements and neighborhoods, and sinkholes large enough to drive utility trucks into.
But political pressure to do something to control both floods and sediment erosion into Fountain Creek grew acute this summer.
On June 21, a flash flood crinkled concrete and broke sewage pipes, sending around 318,000 gallons of untreated wastewater down Fountain Creek to Pueblo. Pueblo's district attorney, Bill Thiebaut, subsequently has sued Colorado Springs for violating the federal Clean Water Act.
The flood also killed two boys, Tucker Graef, 14, and Kevin Carman, 13, of Colorado Springs.
"I'm looking for physical barriers to prevent this from happening to anyone else," Kathy Graef, Tucker's mother, said at the Council meeting.
Only Council members Darryl Glenn and Tom Gallagher voted against the potentially unpopular measure, objecting to it not being put to a public vote.
The last holdout
Colorado Springs is the last major city on the Front Range to impose such fees. The Colorado Supreme Court has upheld cities' rights to charge for storm control without going to the polls.
Perhaps sensing a political opportunity, Al Brody, who unsuccessfully ran for a Council seat as an independent last April, lambasted Council, calling the fee an "expensive and obscure property tax" and an "unnecessary additional layer of government."
This prompted a fiery response from Jay Winner, executive director of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, which represents water interests in Pueblo County.
"Isn't two dead children in El Paso County critical?" he shouted.
Winner said the measure could go a long way toward repairing the rift between Pueblo and Colorado Springs over sewage- and mud-tainted Fountain Creek, and the controversy over Colorado Springs' massive plan to pipe water north from Pueblo Reservoir and return it as wastewater down Fountain Creek.
"I think [the enterprise] means a lot to the people of Pueblo," he said. "It helps create a foundation for a good relationship."
-- Dan Wilcock
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