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No walk in the park 

Options and challenges abound in quest for new district

Two summers could bake Colorado Springs parks to a crispy brown before citizens get another chance to save them in the November 2011 election.

Since voters last fall turned down the city's request for more tax dollars to support parks and other general fund expenses, the Trails and Open Space Coalition has led the charge toward a county-wide parks, recreation and cultural services district, hedging its bets that citizens really do want to pay for green parks with trash cans and accessible bathrooms, so long as they know exactly how their money is spent.

"I think the community is looking for a county-wide solution, and if we can make that work, I think it's in everyone's best interest," says city parks and recreation director Paul Butcher.

A district is a governmental entity working with dedicated tax dollars for a specific purpose — in this case, maintaining our parks, trails and open space. And voters have approved a couple of them in the past. Both the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority and Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) are districts with dedicated, voter-approved taxes. But asking voters to approve a huge new one is risky: Districts take years to plan, and after all the work, voters may simply pan the idea at the polls.

Which is another reason why TOSC leaders say they need until November 2011: They have to find out what the community wants, and what can pass.

"We have to be able to tell people 'what's in it for me,'" says Bill Koerner, TOSC advocacy director.

TOSC is surveying the public to get a preliminary take on three possible setups. (It'll do professional polling later.) Here's what's being eyed:

A TOPS model. Once voters approve a new tax (sales or property) to be collected by El Paso County, it would be doled out to municipal governments based on population. The city parks department would follow specific guidelines to decide how to spend Colorado Springs' share of the money.

Bonuses: It's the easiest solution, and has worked for TOPS.

Drawback: Everyone would likely pay the same tax, whether living in a barren corner of the county or next to a city pool. Areas already paying special taxes to maintain neighborhood parks might oppose the plan. Chris Lieber, leader of TOPS, says neighborhoods often value self-determination.

TOSC leader Susan Davies says that's a problem she's keenly aware of: "Should everybody be paying the same tax? That's something we're still trying to work out."

A PPRTA model. A new voter-approved tax would flow to a special board that includes elected officials and citizens.

Bonuses: Citizen input, of course, is generally looked upon favorably. Also, some communities could probably "opt out" or approve a lower tax rate (with fewer services, of course).

Drawback: Model must be approved by the state Legislature first, then voters must approve the tax. The process could take years.

A regional services model. This would be something new locally. Under this system, a voter-approved tax would funnel money to an elected board, thus taking local government control out of the equation.

Bonuses: A single, elected board would handle all spending, and a variety of tax rates is a possibility.

Drawback: A long setup process includes creating a county-wide district, asking voters for a new tax, and electing board members.

stanley@csindy.com

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