Courtesy City of Colorado Springs
Stormwater work on Monument Branch in the Northgate area— Voyager north of Middle Creek Parkway. This project was listed under the Intergovernmental Agreement with Pueblo County, which is designed to significantly reduce the amount of sediment entering Monument Creek and involves some work to address runoff concerns at the Air Force Academy. Phase 1 of this project was completed in April.
Several City Council members aren't thrilled with a proposal to impose fees on property owners to fund stormwater drainage projects and maintenance, but it appears a majority is willing to submit the measure to voters at the November 7 election.
At today's informal City Council meeting, Council was briefed on an ordinance to resurrect the city’s Stormwater Enterprise fund as a vehicle to raise $17 million a year in drainage project funds.
Three members expressed opposition: Don Knight, Andy Pico and Bill Murray. They said the fees as proposed appear to lack equity and the program as proposed so far has no detailed implementation plan.
The ballot measure would make the fees effective July 1, 2018, and create three classes of property:
• All residential lots would be assessed at $5 each per month. This means a 1,000-square-foot home sitting on a 5,000-square-foot lot would pay the same amount as an 8,000-square-foot home sitting on a 50,000-square-foot lot.
• All other property would be assessed at $30 per acre per month.
• Except that parcels larger than five acres would have their fees calculated by the stormwater manager to disregard areas that are in "a natural state," such as golf courses and athletic fields. So this would impact, say, a resort that has a lot of golf courses.
The measure would permit Council to increase fees only to comply with a court order, federal or state permit, or intergovernmental agreement regarding stormwater entered into before June 1, 2016. The only such IGA is the city's $460-million, 20-year agreement with Pueblo County OK'd in April 2016.
The court order provision is included in anticipation of a ruling in a case in which the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sued the city in November 2016 for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act and not complying with its federal MS4 stormwater discharge permit.
As Councilor David Geislinger noted, Atlanta, Georgia was ordered to spend $3 billion in a similar case, which translates to ratepayers paying $50 a month.
"We run the same risk here," he said. "Yes, it can be increased if the court orders the city to do more."
Several members complained of the rush job of getting the measure on the November ballot, despite not knowing exactly how it would be implemented. City officials told Council the plan is for Colorado Springs Utilities to collect the residential stormwater fees as part of the monthly utility bill, but the non-residential stormwater bills will be farmed out to a vendor for collection. Also, it's unclear whether non-payers would face liens on their property. There was no mention during the two-hour debate of whether late fees would be imposed, or whether Utilities would cut off service for those who didn't pay.
Councilor Don Knight said he won't be voting for the ordinance. "In trying to make the November [ballot] deadline, I think we’ve cut out too many important processes," he said. "I have said repeatedly, the last thing I want is something brought to me poured in concrete where I have to vote up or down, and that’s exactly what I’m seeing now."
He said the "one size fits all" residential monthly charges "dooms" the ballot measure and proposed the start date be moved from July 1, 2018, to Jan. 1, 2019.
Councilor Bill Murray wondered when the city would hold informational meetings to take the pulse of the public. "I thought it was clear — unanimous by council that we would have public meetings prior to any public vote," he said. "When are we having public hearings?"
Council President Richard Skorman said a poll was being conducted this week, with results due next week. "If we're confident it will pass," he said, "then let’s have public meetings."
Skorman also said he wanted to remind everyone that it's the city's responsibility to control its stormwater. Currently, that money, about $13 million a year, is coming from the city's general fund, at the expense of funding other city services, he said, such as police response times, parks maintenance and a fleet that has an average age of 15 years.
"The longer you wait, the more expensive it is," he said. "We can wait until 2018 [to ask voters approval] ... so then we let all the other problems fester. We don’t have money to run our city government because we have this stormwater obligation. Once we can get that taken care of, I think our city budgets and city government will be whole. In my mind, I think it's time to get going."
Councilor Andy Pico said he had "a lot of grave concerns." He noted that a drainage measure in 2014 failed at the polls. That makes the newest version the third time voters have weighed in.
"We shouldn’t go back [to voters] unless we’re compelled to," he said. "We need to do it right the first time."
He noted that voters already have given the city $50 million a year for five years under ballot measure 2C for roads and allowed the city to keep $12 million in excess revenue under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights for 2016 and 2017.
He cited the newest measure as asking for "too much too soon" and added that "going through Utilities is absolutely the wrong way to do it. If we're using a third party to bill nonresidential, then we should roll the residential into it."
The stormwater enterprise would be considered an enterprise under TABOR, which bars such "government businesses" from receiving more than 10 percent of their funding from state and local grants. So does that mean the city will stop applying for grants to fund stormwater projects? If more than 10 percent of funding comes from such grants, the operation is no longer an enterprise, meaning its revenues are subject to TABOR caps, which limit growth of revenue year to year.