Larry Small has a longer memory than most for city politics.
A former vice mayor and city councilor, and currently executive director of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, Small can detail the city's failures to fund stormwater infrastructure. He recalls a half-cent sales tax that was partly used until voters eliminated it in 1991, at the same time they passed the city's version of anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.
Later, he says, Council asked voters for money to fund specific stormwater projects; they only approved one that he can recall, and it was relatively minor. In 2007, the city began collecting about $16 million a year in fees for its Stormwater Enterprise, which wasn't voter-approved. In November 2009, voters passed a Bruce-backed measure to kill it.
Last week, voters turned down the Pikes Peak Regional Drainage Authority, to be funded by nearly $40 million a year in fees, despite a series of devastating floods in the area and concerns that a lack of stormwater maintenance could put Colorado Springs Utilities' $841 million Southern Delivery System pipeline project in jeopardy.
"I wasn't surprised," Small says of the 53-percent-to-47-percent defeat. The public is resistant to taxes in general, he says, but there's also the feeling that stormwater really shouldn't be its problem, because developers should have installed adequate systems in the first place. And for most of the city, stormwater isn't a problem. Floods tend to concentrate in certain neighborhoods.
"It's all localized issues," Small says, "and unless you experience those issues, you don't relate to the need to manage that stormwater."
The leading candidates in the April city mayoral election agree that stormwater will need to be addressed with new taxes or fees, and that the key will be communicating better with voters.
El Paso County Commissioner and mayoral candidate Amy Lathen says she sees no reason to throw away two years of work that went into the Authority proposal, including public input, engineering studies and project lists. Lathen was a key player in putting the Authority forward, and she stands by the proposal. But she says the ballot question was only approved a month before the election, leaving little time for a campaign, and misinformation was widespread.
Lathen wants to keep the task force that created the Authority proposal, but explain that proposal more clearly and tweak it to make it more palatable. She also says the task force needs to better explain that while stormwater may not flood your backyard, it can threaten the bridges you drive over daily, or even put access to clean water at risk.
Former mayor and current candidate Mary Lou Makepeace feels similarly. One difference: While Lathen says the plan and money must be regional, Makepeace is willing to consider setting aside city funds for stormwater, though she calls that option undesirable because it could mean cutting back on other city services. Like Lathen, she'd also like to try again for a regional solution, this time with better communication.
"Maybe [the public] felt it was one more thing where the government was trying to tell them, 'This is what you ought to do,'" she says, adding, "My approach has always been that you don't tell people what to think, you find out what they think."
Outgoing Colorado Attorney General and mayoral candidate John Suthers, who also prefers a regional solution, says he feels a measure could pass if leaders explain to voters that stormwater infrastructure affects the economy. As attorney general, he says, he was contacted by representatives of major companies "that everyone would recognize" who said they had long considered expanding into the Springs but were dissuaded by political turmoil and poor infrastructure. He says Mayor Steve Bach should have been involved in the Authority early on, and then used his position to champion it. Not doing so, he says, echoing the other candidates, was a "failure of leadership."
Bach, who has not yet said whether he will run again, has his own plans for stormwater. He hopes to pass a funding mechanism, perhaps a sales tax, that would pay for city infrastructure, including stormwater improvements (see Noted, p. 13).
Whether a stormwater program in the Springs is a requirement to operate the Southern Delivery System in early 2016 is debatable. John Fredell, SDS program director, says the permits for the projects only refer to containing additional water, which he says should be fully controlled by new drainage requirements the city set. He notes that Colorado Springs Utilities is committed to spending more than $100 million to repair and protect utility infrastructure from stormwater damage and flooding, and is on track to do so.
But Terry Hart, Pueblo County commissioner and the Pueblo County representative on the Fountain Creek District board, says stormwater work is a requirement of the permits. Pueblo County was meeting with lawyers on Monday, Hart says, to decide what legal action to pursue. That action could include suing to prevent the operation of SDS until a stormwater system is in place.
In a statement to the Independent, influential Pueblo Chieftain publisher Bob Rawlings said, "Colorado Springs and its voters have not been supportive of finding and funding solutions for flood control on Fountain Creek throughout the discussions about Southern Delivery System. It should not have been built and should not be turned on until those questions are answered."