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Colorado Springs faces chore of setting up billing mechanisms for its new drainage fee 

Getting the dough to flow

click to enlarge PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
On election night, Nov. 7, jubilation reigned at Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. as supporters of the city's stormwater fee celebrated its victory by a comfortable 54-46 margin.

But within 24 hours, the reality of the work triggered by the measure had settled over City Hall, with City Councilor Tom Strand and Mayor John Suthers acknowledging much needs to be done to implement the fee by July 1.

For one, the Colorado Springs Utilities Board, composed of City Council, must approve placing the monthly $5-per-household fee on residential utility bills, for which the city would pay the agency a one-time fee of $1.8 million and $200,000 a year, the Gazette reported.

Approval of Utilities handling collections is expected, and Strand says it appears that customers who don't pay the stormwater fee would risk losing all utility services.

"We're discussing this with Utilities [staff]," Strand says. "If someone doesn't pay their bill, what's likely to happen is their utilities will be turned off."

Fees of $30 per acre for non-residential developed parcels will be billed by the city, which must set up the mechanics to do that. Undeveloped properties will be assessed by the stormwater manager based on impervious surface. (Suthers has said the city will pay an annual bill of about $100,000 for its property, including park land.) Those, too, will be billed by the city.

Strand says the consequence for nonpayment of non-residential billings is "likely" a lien placed on the property, which would require cooperation from El Paso County, the keeper of deed records. "The county commissioners I've talked to say they will cooperate," he says.

In 2011, when the city wanted to collect $765,000 still owed for stormwater fees implemented in 2007 but halted in 2009, county officials refused to add the fees to property tax bills or deeds. Those fees, however, were not approved by voters.

Another complication is which properties, if any, will be deemed exempt from the stormwater fee. The measure approved on Nov. 7 entitles the city to bill nonprofits and churches, but what about federal agencies, such as post offices?

Federal agencies didn't pay the city's stormwater fees imposed in 2007, citing sovereign immunity and claiming the fees were a tax and, thus, unconstitutional. But, thanks to a bill signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 4, 2011, which amended the Clean Water Act, the federal government will pay its fair share of local stormwater management services, according to the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

Whether that bill applies to military installations is unclear. However, the association wrote in a newsletter that the law was envisioned as a way to resolve billing disputes with various federal agencies, including in Aurora where the city had billed Buckley Air Force Base $143,445 in outstanding stormwater fees as of May 2010.

Although Strand initially said he thought Peterson Air Force Base, which overlaps into the city limits, could be exempted, when told of the 2011 amendment to the Clean Water Act, he was eager to learn more about it.

"They use our resources, and we respond to help them with fire protection, although they have their own fire service," he says. "I think they ought to be accountable under this current situation [ballot measure] we passed on Tuesday [Nov. 7]."

Suthers said at a news conference on Nov. 8 that he had presented an amended budget to City Council that includes money to hire 20 police officers and eight firefighters in 2018 with money now used for stormwater needs. That money will be freed up when the fees begin flowing in.

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