Mayor Steve Bach leaned across the table, and began rattling off his stormwater plan, gesticulating with his long arms.
"I am not comfortable with this city delegating or abdicating its responsibility or authority through a third party," he told the audience of City Councilors, El Paso County commissioners, small-town mayors, and volunteers of the Regional Stormwater Task Force. "At the same time, and I want to be clear on this, I do want to participate on a regional basis.
"So I have just pounded out here some ideas, and I know it's the first time you've seen it. I'm happy to answer any questions."
If his words conveyed a certain hopefulness, everything else suggested that Bach hardly expected widespread buy-in from this group. He had saved this talk for the end of the Oct. 9 gathering, he wasn't accepting public comments, and he actually answered few questions from his colleagues before moving on to media interviews.
He had good reason to fear an angry reaction.
After months of refusing to participate in task force efforts to craft a regional stormwater solution — which already has buy-in from the county, City Council, Pueblo, smaller municipalities and other stakeholders — the mayor was presenting his own plan. The task force is leaning toward asking voters for a region-wide fee for stormwater with the money controlled by a special governing board. The mayor wants to issue capital improvement bonds and apply the money to city projects for a few years, while coordinating large-scale work through a toothless regional authority. (See "How they stack up," below.)
Wrapping up his comments, Bach elicited further incredulity by asking the Task Force to delay its scheduled public meetings in October and November, until his own plan could be vetted.
The meetings are still on.
Many area leaders and volunteers gathered at City Hall following the meeting to lambaste the mayor's plan. Among the gripes were that it: would create debt; wasn't vetted through a public process; wouldn't fund stormwater regionally; and would only address the problem in the short-term. Proponents of the regional plan stressed that stormwater should be treated differently than other capital needs because "water knows no boundaries."
"We don't have any desire in the county to take power away from the city," County Commissioner Amy Lathen said.
Following the meeting, though, Bach explained to the Independent that he was concerned with more than power. He believed his plan would more holistically address the city's capital needs, since his proposed bonds would also help beautify parks, fix roads and bridges, and replace police cars. And, he noted, it would do so without a tax increase.
"To me that's the last resort," he said. "We may get there, [but] I believe we can bridge this over the next half-decade and demonstrate that we can be efficient and effective redeploying existing dollars so that then, if we need to ask for a tax, we've got the confidence of the public."
Lathen countered that Bach was being unrealistic.
"I don't want [a tax or fee], either," she said. " ... We'll look at absolutely any possibility out there, including what [Bach] has proposed. But we have to be honest about what we're looking at, and we have to be honest about the scope of this problem and our responsibilities. ... We have identified over a half billion dollars in issues, in this case, in the city alone. We don't have that in our budgets. We don't have it."
What's the figure, now?
At the beginning of the year, the Regional Stormwater Task Force, working alongside city and county staff, released the first estimate of the area's stormwater capital needs: more than $906 million for the region, about $686 million in the city alone.
The city number — made by compiling old lists of projects and checking with neighborhoods to look for new ones — was significantly higher than previous estimates for the city's needs. Mayor Steve Bach quickly announced that he'd hire an outside engineering firm, CH2M HILL, to review the list.
On Oct. 9, representatives from the firm provided a new number for city stormwater needs: more than $534 million. The smaller figure reflects the firm's review of projects, which found 31 were already complete, 12 were duplicated, and one did not exist. The firm also removed many projects from the list that it classified as "maintenance" rather than capital needs, and upped the cost of many other projects to better reflect current costs.
However, CH2M HILL was only able to come up with solid cost estimates for 154 projects. Costs of another 84 projects were not updated. The firm found just 34 projects — worth about $137 million — were both high-priority and well-understood enough to provide a true cost estimate.
Given the difficulties, neither the original county estimate nor CH2M HILL's can be considered complete, and it should be noted that neither considers the impact of recent floods.
Ch2M HILL's report does, however, give better guidance as to which projects should be completed first. The county, working with other stakeholders, is also contracting with Ch2M HILL for a similar report that will cover El Paso County. It is due out in December.
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