Trying to find a way to pull parks from the clutches of ruin caused by deep budget cuts, a citizens group might seek a tax increase in November. Parks supporters probably won't try to collect the thousands of signatures to initiate a measure, but instead ask county commissioners to refer the question to the ballot.
But that's getting ahead of things. A citizen-based subcommittee of the Sustainable Parks Initiative, a group that formed after the county threatened to sell off its parks a few years ago, will first conduct a scientific poll this month to find out if residents are fed up with watching grass dry up, having no trash service, seeing playground equipment fall apart without being replaced, having swimming pools closed and facing the prospect of the Pioneers Museum being shut down.
"If we get these results and say, 'Oh, my gosh. People get it. They see these problems and are willing to fix them,' we would be foolish not to go forward with this," says Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition.
The poll, funded by citizens' donations, will check in with 400 voters, Davies says. Texas-based pollster David Hill will get a read on whether people care enough about the parks to support a new tax, and, if so, whether they favor a sales or property tax.
Davies says parks advocates are shying away from the idea of a countywide parks district, because a separate entity would be saddled with up to $2 million a year in operational costs, such as for technology, human resources and legal advice, that now are paid by the city and county.
If anyone doubts city parks' predicament, consider: The parks budget's general fund total was $19.7 million in 2008, not including grants. This year, it's $3.7 million — an 81 percent drop due to plummeting sales-tax revenue in a souring economy.
The county's decline hasn't been as drastic. Before the recession set in, the county budgeted about $2.2 million for parks in 2006. This year, it plans to spend $818,045.
Even though that's a 63 percent drop, County Commissioner Jim Bensberg says the county has been able to irrigate, mow and fertilize parks, and keep trash cans in place.
"I would be happy to hear them and the opposing arguments for such a taxing district," he says. "But I'm not convinced there's a need for that in the county. I think we've done a darn good job taking care of county parks."
That said, he adds, "I'm happy to hear a reasonable request to put something on the ballot, and I'll keep an open mind."
Commissioner Sallie Clark has a different take: "At this point in the economy, I don't know that I could support it. I don't think this is the time to refer measures to pay for parks when everyone is struggling to make ends meet."
Two years ago, Clark voted with other commissioners to refer a $75 million sales tax measure for facilities and law enforcement to the ballot. It failed 60-40 percent.
The other recent measure referred by commissioners, the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority sales tax on the 2004 ballot, passed by 55-45 percent. It generates roughly $70 million a year in transportation projects for the county and cities and towns that opted in, including Colorado Springs.