On Wednesday, Dec. 16th, the TOPS (Trails Open spaces and ParkS) Working Committee, an offshoot of the Colorado Springs Parks Advisory Board, made formal recommendations towards a possible April ballot measure that will determine the future of the city's TOPS program.
The TOPS program is a sales tax of one cent on every $10 spent in Colorado Springs, or online purchases sent to Colorado Springs addresses. The voter-approved tax was created in 1997, intended as a mechanism to fund the purchase of land to be used to create trails and open spaces for recreation. After taking 2 percent off the top to administer the program, a minimum of 60 percent of revenue was to be used for open space acquisition and stewardship, a maximum of 20 percent to be used for new trails construction, and the remaining 20 percent to be used for park acquisition, development and maintenance.
Voters approved changes to the program in 2003 that increased to 3 percent the portion of the programs revenue allocated for administration, and allowed for 6 percent to go to the stewardship and maintenance of trails and property that were purchased with TOPS funds. In another election in 2013, voters approved a ballot initiative that allowed the 20 percent of revenue designated for "parks" to be used for all parks in the city's park system, not just those purchased or built with TOPS funds.
In the years since the program's inception, it has purchased land that has become some of Colorado Spring' most popular recreation hot spots. Stratton Open Space (the very first TOPS purchase), Red Rock Canyon Open Space, Bluestem Prairie Open Space and the expansion of Ute Valley Park are just a few of the TOPS program's successes.
While the TOPS program currently generates between $9 and $10 million every year, and continues to purchase land for future recreational use — such as the recent purchase of the Pikeview Quarry frontage property and the Black Canyon Quarry — it doesn't generate enough money to develop property that the program has purchased, and in some cases maintenance of existing parks and trails is years and millions of dollars behind. The most recent citywide parks master plan, completed in 2014, recommended that the TOPS tax be increased to help alleviate the backlog.
With the TOPS program set to expire in about five years, moving forth with a ballot initiative — as early as April, 2021 — to either extend the program or change the tax rate, or to change how revenue is allocated, has become a hot topic of discussion in the Colorado Springs outdoor recreation community. Polling and community meetings have been held or are underway to gather opinions on what the public wants from the TOPS program in the future. The TOPS Working Committee, which is charged with examining potential TOPS acquisitions and recommending for or against land purchases, discussed over the course of four meetings what it would recommend to City Council to pursue in a future ballot initiative regarding the TOPS program.
After much discussion, the committee recommended, in order of priority, that the TOPS tax be increased from .1 percent to .25 percent (from 1 cent on every $10 dollars to 2.5 cents), to extend the TOPS program for another 20 years from it's current expiration date in 2025, and that the parks department, with TOPS Working Committee approval, be allowed more flexibility in how TOPS tax revenue is spent.
The recommendations are being forwarded to the city's Parks Advisory Board, who will make their own recommendations, and forward both to City Council. Armed with both recommendations, the results of polling and community meetings and their own opinions, Council will then determine what, if anything, to put on the April ballot. Should Council decide to move forward with an April ballot measure, it must have the measure's language finalized by the end of January.
Be Good. Do Good Things.
Disclosure: The author is the chairperson of the TOPS Working Committee. Any opinions expressed are his own, and do not represent the opinions of the committee or any other persons or organizations.