Last week, the Indy urged you to "vote no" on Issue 1, the Trails, Open Space and Parks adjustment, because it "could decimate TOPS."
Let's be clear. Issue 1 will not reduce any TOPS funding. Right now, at least 60 percent of the TOPS money has to be spent on purchasing open space, while only 20 percent can be spent on building new trails and 20 percent on building new parks.
If Issue 1 passes, the TOPS open space and trails accounts will remain untouched. The only change will come to how the parks category is spent. Decimate? No. Allocate more wisely? Yes.
Issue 1 is on the ballot because the Mayor's Parks Solutions Team, which I chaired, discovered that the annual cost to maintain our parks will outstrip revenues by $3.5 million in just six years. That figure doesn't include approximately $40 million in deferred maintenance and renovations needed for our aging parks infrastructure.
If we don't head off this impending "train wreck," we will likely lose a good amount of that infrastructure, and indeed our parks may turn brown once again.
Despite the "train wreck" coming, there is $4 million sitting unspent in the TOPS parks account — which could grow to $21 million by the sunset of the tax in 2025. That's because there isn't a willingness from parks staff and their boards to recommend spending that money on building new parks when we don't have funds to renovate and maintain what we have.
So about a year ago, the Trails and Open Space Coalition Advocacy Committee came up with a great idea. Why not allow some or all of the parks' portion of the TOPS tax to also be used for "renovation and maintenance of existing parks"? All those involved — the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and staff, the TOPS Advisory Committee, the mayor, City Council, the TOSC board and the Parks Solutions Team — agreed it was a great idea. Hence, Issue 1.
It didn't make sense to be forced to build only new parks that cost the city $9,200 an acre per year to maintain when we can't maintain what we have. We hoped that some of that "new park-building" money could be used not only to renovate decaying park infrastructure before we have to replace it at a higher cost, but also to retrofit old irrigation systems and replace water-intensive bluegrass to make our parks more sustainable.
In other words, allow the "flexibility" to spend "some" of that money today, to save in the future. And that's exactly what staff and the park board are recommending if Issue 1 passes.
So why have the TOSC board and the Indy opposed Issue 1? Because it doesn't contain a maintenance of effort (MOE) clause — ballot language to help ensure that the current park funding levels in the general fund would not be replaced with TOPS money.
In lieu of an MOE, the mayor wrote a letter and Council unanimously passed a resolution stating their intentions to keep general-fund park funding "at least" at current levels — except in the case of a "dire" emergency. Council underlined and capitalized its intention in its resolution, and the mayor was even quoted saying it "would be unethical" to do otherwise.
These assurances in mind, the TOSC board was set to reconsider its position as of press time. But what happens if the Indy gets its way and Issue 1 fails?
Our older parks will continue to degrade, causing more long-term burdens on the system. We won't invest much in efficient landscaping and irrigation systems. We will have to make tough cutback choices in a few years when the "train wreck" comes.
Meanwhile, we will continue to stockpile money in an account that nobody wants to spend, or be forced to build new parks we can't maintain. And, if we have to ask for a new tax in the future, we will not have earned voters' trust.
Here's my recommendation: Don't throw a good idea out the window because of fear. If this mayor or Council, or future ones, pull "a fast one," we should bring out the tar and feathers. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt until then. With TOPS money and park funding, you never have to worry about having enough eyes on the prize.
Richard Skorman is former vice mayor of Colorado Springs and chair of the Parks Solutions Team.