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In 'educational' flooding program, some see an ulterior motive

Did you know you should "move to higher ground if water is approaching"?

The Pikes Peak Regional Building Department spent roughly $31,400 to send that message to 62,000 women, with a mailer that also warns, "do not cross standing water on foot or when driving." (It went to women because they're more concerned about safety, the consultants say.)

Such common-sense messages aren't really the point of the mailer, according to Colorado Springs City Councilor Helen Collins. She says its real purpose is to persuade people to vote for a stormwater fee, which she opposes. "This flier has little to do with stormwater safety," she says. "It promotes voting for the stormwater fee."

State law bars governments from spending money to promote or oppose ballot measures. And while it's true that there's no stormwater measure yet, this month the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners is expected to refer one to the Nov. 4 ballot. It would create the Pikes Peak Regional Drainage Authority; fees on property owners based on impervious surface would raise $39 million a year to tackle a project backlog, and to fund operations, maintenance and emergencies.

Regional Building officials dispute that its $99,013 educational campaign, which also includes eight billboards, ads in neighborhood newspapers and radio and TV spots, is connected to that effort. "It's supposed to be strictly an educational community outreach program," says official Henry Yankowski.

Unanimous approval

The campaign, Yankowski says, is part of RBD's effort to lower flood insurance premiums in seven communities and the county; the Federal Emergency Management Agency takes public-information campaigns into account as it assigns scores to individual areas.

"The community rating system applies discounts on flood insurance based on activities of the community," Yankowski says, which can include master planning, mapping and public information, among other things.

He says the RBD Commission, composed of City Councilor Val Snider, County Commissioner Dennis Hisey and Green Mountain Falls Mayor Pro Tem Tyler Stevens, authorized the education effort, and Yankowski chose to hire Campaign Consulting Consortium.

Called C3, the group was formed in March by Kevin Walker, Rachel Beck and Sarah Jack, all of whom have been active in the Pikes Peak Stormwater Task Force, which was started two years ago. Walker and Beck also worked on the mayor-council ballot measure adopted by voters in 2010, and Jack has run numerous political campaigns.

A contract was approved in March for $20,000, just shy of the $25,000 that would have triggered the need for board approval and competitive bidding, Yankowski says. At the June 25 commission meeting, RBD attorney Todd Welch said the county had requested that $100,000 previously budgeted for city and county fire and flood mitigation be spent on "storm water education," the meeting minutes state.

"[Welch] said in addition, RBD would like the Building Commission's approval to waive the procurement process because the vendor has already been chosen," the minutes state. The money transfer and competitive-bidding waiver were approved unanimously.

Hisey says via email the board decided to fund the campaign to promote safety and that it was timed to coincide with the rainy season. Noting the materials say nothing about a ballot measure, he adds, "To forgo delivering vital safety information because there may or may not be a ballot measure in coming months would be irresponsible."

Return to sender

Dave Munger, Stormwater Task Force chair, says the campaign is a collaboration between the task force and RBD. The partnership is evident in C3's proposal approved March 15 by Yankowski, which says C3 will provide "consulting, communication and fundraising services to [RBD] and the Citizens Stormwater Task Force." The proposal also says C3 would educate the public about the "current Stormwater crisis" and develop a "campaign plan."

The mailer's return address is "Pikes Peak Stormwater Task Force," and part of its message says, "Learn more at www.pikespeakstormwater.org," a site that contains components of the pending ballot measure.

"Neglected flood and stormwater systems no longer keep up — putting our lives, our homes, and our businesses at risk," it states.

"A key function of government is to keep its citizens safe," Munger says via email. "Everything ... we used is straight forward and very focused: be prepared, and here's how to keep yourself and your family safe."

Beck says the campaign ends later this month, when the normal rainy season ends.

How convenient, says anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce. "Who are they fooling?" he asks. "That is ... an attempt to evade the letter and spirit of the law."

zubeck@csindy.com

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