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Council backs Red Rock Canyon purchase

The majority of Colorado Springs' current City Council members swept into office this spring preaching the gospel of smaller government, private property and free enterprise.

Still, it didn't escape the Council's new vanguard that two-thirds of the people who elected them simultaneously sent a loud and clear message of support for a decidedly anti-free-market concept -- the use of public funds to preserve open spaces -- by voting to extend the city's Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) sales tax.

That popular endorsement was cited by several Council members Tuesday as they voted unanimously to pursue purchasing and preserving Red Rock Canyon, a 789-acre foothills property between Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs.

"This community has voted twice to support open space," noted Councilwoman Margaret Radford, referring to the original approval of the TOPS sales tax in 1997 and the recent extension vote.

Tuesday's Council vote directs city staff to negotiate a final purchase agreement with the Trust for Public Land, a conservation organization that holds an option to buy Red Rock Canyon from its private owner, Joan Bock. The Council will still need to give final approval to the purchase, estimated to cost more than $12.5 million.

Most of the money to buy the land would come from the TOPS sales tax. (Details of the proposal were described in the May 22 issue of the Independent, available online at www.csindy.com.)

The city would have to grapple with several environmental issues on the property, including fencing off and monitoring an old landfill. It would also have to help relocate tenants who live in 18 mobile homes and four houses on the land.

But the complications are worth it, Council members said.

"I think this is going to be an opportunity for us to leave a legacy for the future," said Councilman Jerry Heimlicher.

-- Terje Langeland

Big utility customers get a break

Sure, the City of Colorado Springs is facing huge budget cuts, and residents will soon see skyrocketing utility rates -- but that doesn't mean the city should sock it to people who own lots of property, the City Council agreed Tuesday.

Following a recommendation from Colorado Springs Utilities -- the city's ratepayer-owned utility company -- the Council voted unanimously to give seven large utility customers a break from CSU's new streetlight fee.

The Council enacted the street-light fee last year as a budget-cutting measure. The city's general budget used to cover the installation of street lights, but the Council decided at the time to shift the cost to CSU, which passed it on to ratepayers as a fee.

The monthly fee is just $1.79 for each residential property, and $4.86 for each non-residential property. However, for some people who own numerous properties, the total annual fees amount to several thousands of dollars.

"This situation typically involves commercial entities with numerous billing premises," wrote Phillip Tollefson, the utility's CEO, in a memo to the City Council. "Utilities is concerned that in a few instances the amount of the charges collected may exceed a reasonable approximation of the benefits received."

Tollefson's proposed remedy, embraced by the Council, was to cap the total street-light fees paid by any single account to $5,000 per year. The change would affect just seven customers and would cost CSU $64,000 in lost revenues annually.

The move comes just days after CSU announced that regular customers might face rate hikes of up to 50 percent in the next five years. However, Tollefson said the streetlight fee can only be used for streetlights and therefore has no bearing on utility rates.

Just who are the seven customers getting this special break? CSU won't say. "We can't disclose customer information without their consent," Tollefson said.

-- Terje Langeland

"Eagle Eyes" is watching you

Under the First Amendment, you're free to stand outside a military installation and film or take pictures all day long. Doing so, however, might earn you a visit from Air Force spooks.

That's what happened to a team of independent filmmakers earlier this month, who were shooting outside Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs on May 8. The New York-based film crew is working on a documentary about three nuns facing federal prison terms for trespassing at a nuclear missile silo in northern Colorado (see "When Nuns Attack," Nov. 14, 2002, available online at www.csindy.com).

Under an anti-terrorism program called "Eagle Eyes," started by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations last year, people on and off Air Force bases are encouraged to report "suspicious activities" including "the use of cameras (either still or video), note taking, drawing diagrams, annotating on maps, or using binoculars."

Accordingly, the filmmakers' presence was noticed and reported to the OSI office at Schriever. Though the film crew had left by then, OSI agents found out that the crew was planning to attend a potluck for the nuns later in the day at All Souls Unitarian Church.

When the film crew arrived for the potluck, two plainclothes OSI agents were waiting for them on the church steps. The agents asked if they could see the filmmakers' footage. The crew obliged them.

"That's an extremely volatile situation," explained Hannah Shakespeare, the film crew's leader. She said that although the agents were polite, she feared what might happen if she didn't cooperate.

The agents found nothing suspicious and left.

Sgt. Carolyn Collins, an OSI spokeswoman, said filming outside an Air Force installation won't necessarily make you the subject of an investigation. However, to avoid having agents knock on your door, "the best thing to do is to contact the base" in advance, Collins said.

-- Terje Langeland

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