For the second time in three years, stormwater is on the ballot in Colorado Springs. It's not an issue readily apparent until it rains, when small ponds often fill the streets of the city. It also presents a legal issue with the city's southern neighbor. A proposed fee, backed by the mayor and a majority of city council, would raise money to fund improvements and maintenance on the city's stormwater infrastructure. Proponents hope this effort will succeed where others have failed.
A construction crew saws through a concrete pipe on a piece of city property just off Woodmen Road. They’re standing in a freshly dug pit, about 30 feet deep and roughly the size of a few tennis courts.
"This will be a natural pond," explains Richard Mulledy, "a revegetated pond with natural grasses."
Mulledy manages the city’s Water Resources Engineering Division. He says that, once finished, this pond will serve as a buffer for rainwater rushing off the streets and parking lots of nearby housing developments.
"The goal of this thing is to build a regional detention facility," he says, "that will hold stormwater runoff for a period, and then release it slowly so that downstream -- it lessens those flows downstream."
Water runs from here into Cottonwood Creek. It then flows into Fountain Creek, and eventually down into Pueblo. Lack of adequate stormwater infrastructure in sites like this one has led to local flooding, as well as problems with erosion and water quality in the Steel City. Mulledy says the new detention pond will directly address those problems.
This is one of 71 stormwater projects that Colorado Springs committed to as part of an agreement with Pueblo County, signed in 2016. It states that Colorado Springs will spend $460 million on stormwater projects over the next 20 years. It’s a lot of money, but Springs Mayor John Suthers says the city has no choice but to spend it -- thanks to the agreement, as well as a pending lawsuit filed by the EPA for stormwater-related violations of the Clean Water Act.
"The bottom line is the legal chickens have come home to roost," says Suthers. "We are going to spend a minimum of $20 million every year for the next 20 years to deal with our inadequate stormwater problems."
So the question is, where will that money come from?
Currently, it’s coming from the city’s general operating fund. But many cities charge a separate, dedicated stormwater fee. In fact, Colorado Springs did that from 2005 until 2009, before anti-tax activist Doug Bruce led a successful campaign against it. The city asked voters to reinstate the fee in 2014, but that measure failed.
Mayor Suthers says now that the city is committing to significantly more stormwater spending to comply with the Pueblo agreement, it’s hardpressed to fund other vital services, like public safety.
"We are short about 100-120 police officers, and that is reflected in our inadequate response times," he explains. He says a stormwater fee is needed to free up money in the general fund to solve that problem.
"We cannot meet our legal obligations and spend 20 million dollars a year for stormwater out of general fund, and also adequately staff police and fire over the next several years."
On this year’s ballot in Colorado Springs, question 2A asks voters to approve a new stormwater fee. It would add $5 to the monthly utility bill of all residential properties, and charge $30 per acre -- up to 5 acres -- for non-residential properties. Mayor Suthers has pledged to put the majority of the freed-up funds toward public safety. The rest, he says, will likely go toward parks and the city’s vehicle fleet.
Local activist Laura Carno is leading a campaign against the measure. She says she agrees the city needs more police and fire, but not more money.
"The money’s definitely there, the city has record revenues and record spending," she says.
For Carno, it’s a matter of prioritizing the things that the city needs to spend money on, like public safety and stormwater, and looking for savings elsewhere in the budget. She implores elected officials to "turn over every stone before they ask for more money."
Others have criticized the effort on the grounds that the city has asked for too much money in recent years, with this year’s TABOR retention measure and 2015’s "pothole tax" still fresh in mind. The mayor says he’s sympathetic, but believes now is the time to make long overdue investments in the city’s infrastructure.
Ballots are in the mail to Colorado Springs voters, and must be submitted by November 7th.