District of confusion 

Might a smattering of mini-governments be the Springs' salvation, or a false idol?

Minutes after voters spanked local government at the polls, the word "district" was on the tongues of everyone from Mayor Lionel Rivera to Parks and Recreation director Paul Butcher.

City Councilor Darryl Glenn — who called the election results "an absolute repudiation of the direction we've been leading" — believes regional districts and authorities are the future of everything from stormwater maintenance to fire protection. The city, county, activists and citizens should come together, he says, and work to churn out a handful of new districts in the next couple of years.

Sounds like an easy solution. But in reality, setting up districts is mind-numbingly complicated, time-consuming work.

Special districts are mini-governments, offering specific services such as parks maintenance or bus operations, and encompassing an area as large as a region or as small as a neighborhood. They are ruled by their own boards, and operated with dedicated revenues, such as a sales or property tax. Authorities, such as Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, are a similar entity, but they are not as autonomous from city and county governments. Establishing either requires voter approval.

Supporters say districts would protect our city's greatest assets. And the time is certainly ripe for some action — Council has already given informal blessing to halve bus services, decimate parks and recreation funding (barring an intervention by a private-sector white horse), and eliminate or phase out stormwater maintenance.

But is this really what citizens want?

'No Plan B'

Elected officials think so. In the past, they note, voters have been more friendly to tax increases with clear spending restrictions, such as PPRTA and the Trails, Open Space and Parks sales tax. And districts offer additional rules about how tax funds are spent, more budget security, more expertise and strong business plans.

A couple of community groups have been eyeing districts for the past year. The Sustainable Parks Initiative is looking at options for parks and recreation, and the Transportation Working Group has been brainstorming ways to create a regional transit district or authority for bus service.

"As far as I'm concerned," transit group member Steve Saint says, "there is no Plan B. If this doesn't work, there isn't going to be a transit system in Colorado Springs."

But the district idea isn't without problems. As County Commissioner Sallie Clark notes, you're creating more government. Layers and layers of it. And the tax-averse crowd might shy away from the costs of running all that government.

"I think people need to understand that it's not necessarily going to cost less," Clark says.

The biggest problem with districts, however, seems to be the difficulty of creating them.

If all goes well, some districts — particularly for parks and transit — might be in place by 2011. Or not.

Many hurdles

Here are some tangles still to be combed out:

You can't get what you want, if you don't know what you want. The state allows several kinds of districts, each with different ground rules. If your idea doesn't fit perfectly in one of those slots — and it rarely does with big projects — you can ask the state Legislature to create a new category. But that could take years, and your bid may fail.

Alternately, you could opt to establish an authority. Or you could just ask voters to expand an existing dedicated tax, like TOPS or PPRTA.

It all depends on what you want, and there are decisions to make at every stage. For instance, do you want an appointed, elected or volunteer board, or would you rather leave the real authority with existing governments?

"There's 40 million options, basically," says Bill Koerner of the parks group.

Sales tax or property tax? Property tax is the prize because it brings in more steady revenues than sales tax, which relies on the whims of shoppers. But a property tax is harder to pass, particularly because rates differ drastically depending on where you live.

Not everyone is going to care. Convincing people to fork over their cash is complicated. In the case of transit, group member Andrea Archer notes, you're asking everyone to pay for a system that only some people use. "How do you market to the 95 percent of people who do not use transit?" she asks.

Parks are faced with a different challenge: Some areas of town have tiny special districts that collect property taxes to maintain neighborhood assets. It's doubtful that voters in those areas will want to pay for a large new district to do the same thing.

Is this really going to work? Voters have turned down multiple requests for tax increases, so will they pass an onslaught of tax hikes in the middle of a recession? Susan Davies, who serves on the parks board, says she doesn't think so. While her group wants to put something on the November 2010 ballot, she says they'll hold off if the economy hasn't kicked up by then.

As Davies puts it, "We want something that can win."

Time is not on anyone's side. As finances deteriorate, the city is dismantling the very system that these districts propose to revive. If the districts have to start over from scratch, costs might be prohibitive, Davies notes. Especially since nobody expects voters to approve any Cadillac plans.


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