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Voters to decide on extending TOPS program

It took a massive grass-roots effort and a failed first attempt before Colorado Springs voters narrowly agreed in 1997 to establish a sales tax to fund trails, open spaces and parks in the city.

Six years later, as voters are being asked to approve an extension of the tax, the Trails, Open Space and Parks program -- known as TOPS -- has won the overwhelming support of the city's movers and shakers. Local business and development organizations are endorsing the proposed extension, as are 24 of the 27 people running for office in the municipal elections.

Still, some opposition remains. Anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce said Tuesday he planned to file a lawsuit challenging the extension proposal, and The Gazette continues to editorialize repeatedly against the TOPS program.

And ultimately, it's what the voters -- not the movers and shakers -- want that matters.

"We're feeling optimistic, but it's a tough economic time," said City Councilman Richard Skorman, one of the main backers of the original TOPS initiative. A tax extension might be a tough sell given the current recession, he said. "We're not taking this for granted."

Leveraging funds

The current TOPS tax -- 0.1 percent, or a penny on each $10 purchase -- was established when voters approved a citizens' initiative in 1997, after having first rejected it two years before.

The tax is set to expire in 2009, but the proposal would extend it through 2025 in order to generate additional funds for open space and other projects. Voters will decide whether to agree to the extension when they cast their ballots in the current municipal extension, which is taking place by mail through April 1.

Since its inception, TOPS has raised more than $29 million in direct sales- tax revenue, and the money has also been used to leverage an additional $31 million in donations and grants from other sources, such as the state lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado program.

"To me, one of the great successes of the TOPS program is that leveraging," said Kent Obee, chairman of the TOPS Working Committee, a citizen advisory group.

The program has helped preserve more than 3,100 acres of open space, 16 parks and park projects, and more than 40 miles of trail throughout the city. Among the open-space properties preserved with TOPS funds are the Stratton Open Space near Cheyenne Canyon, Cheyenne State Park, the Big Johnson Open Space and the Blodgett Open Space.

Eye on Red Rock Canyon

But although the tax is set to last through 2009, much of the future revenue has already been committed to projects. Now, a major reason why the city wants to extend the TOPS tax is to acquire Red Rock Canyon, a private property that city officials have long wanted to preserve.

The 787-acre foothills property, bordered by Crystal Hills in Manitou Springs to the west, Highway 24 to the north, Section 16 to the south, and 26th and 31st streets to the east, has been characterized as "an extension of the Garden of the Gods," with spectacular sandstone formations, canyons, lakes, trails and wildlife.

The Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization, has secured an option to purchase the property from its current owner, Joan Bock, with the intention of reselling it to the city. Though no price tag has been officially disclosed, it has been reported that Bock is seeking $15 million.

If the TOPS extension is rejected, the city may not have enough money to buy and preserve all of Red Rock Canyon, officials say. In that case, a portion of the land may be developed to help pay for the purchase.

But there are also many other future projects that will depend on TOPS funding, says Terry Putman, manager of the TOPS program. For example, as the city continues to grow to the east, more than 100 new neighborhood parks will be necessary over the next 50 years, he says. Already, many pieces of land set aside by developers for such neighborhood parks are sitting undeveloped, waiting for funds, Putman notes.

Every square inch

TOPS proponents such as Skorman cite the daily newspaper's editorials as the most significant source of opposition to the current extension proposal. The newspaper argues that when the city purchases open space, it removes land that could otherwise be developed from the city's tax base.

But those who traditionally benefit from developing land in the city disagree. Pro-business and development organizations are, in fact, backing and helping fund the TOPS campaign.

"When you look at the big picture, having trails and open space in Colorado Springs is better for quality of life as a whole," said Brad Ausmus, president of the Housing and Building Association, which has donated $5,000 to the campaign. Contrary to what some people may think, "we don't actually want to develop every square inch of the city," he added.

This week, Douglas Bruce joined the opposition to the ballot initiative, saying he would file a lawsuit challenging its legality.

According to Bruce, the ballot language is deceptive because it states that the proposal will fund the TOPS program "without raising additional taxes." According to Bruce, a tax extension is the same as a tax increase.

"They're lying," he said of city officials. "These are vicious, evil people."

City Attorney Patricia Kelly, meanwhile, said the city's charter clearly distinguishes between tax increases and tax extensions, and the Colorado Supreme Court has also recognized the distinction, she said.

Ballots for the city election are scheduled to be mailed to registered voters this week. The ballots must be returned by April 1.

Terje Langeland

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