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Out of space

Anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce takes on TOPS


Red Rock Canyon, recently acquired by the city with TOPS funds. - ROBERT ALFORD
  • Robert Alford
  • Red Rock Canyon, recently acquired by the city with TOPS funds.

Terry Putman has a list of 15 planned neighborhood parks in Colorado Springs that are, for now, little more than patches of dirt or grass. Hardly a day goes by, he says, when someone doesn't call to ask when one of the parks is going to be developed.

Putman, the manager of the city's Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) program, also has three larger community parks on his list, and two sports complexes. The land for the facilities already belongs to the city, most of it donated by developers.

But if local anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce has his way, none of the parks would be developed any time soon, Putman says. Not many more local trails might be built, either. And the city's two most recent open-space purchases, 789-acre Red Rock Canyon and the 33-acre Union Meadows, could be its last -- at least for the foreseeable future.

Holding pattern

Bruce, who is currently also running for El Paso County commissioner, filed a lawsuit last year challenging the city's 0.1 percent sales tax for trails, parks and open space, which was initially approved by city voters in 1997 and re-approved by the voters in April 2003.

In the suit, Bruce maintains the city deceived voters and violated state law by claiming the 2003 vote, labeled as an "extension" of the existing tax, wasn't a vote on increasing taxes.

The suit has placed much the efforts of TOPS on hold for the past year. But next month, the holding pattern could come to an end, as Bruce's lawsuit is to be tried on May 18.

That's assuming it goes to trial. A 4th Judicial District Court judge was expected to rule Wednesday on a motion by the city to dismiss the case. No decision was announced by the Independent's press time; however, Bruce said he would appeal any dismissal.

If Bruce wins in the end, "we're done," Putman said this week. "Basically, we're done buying open space. There are a lot of areas that will not get preserved."

Bought and preserved

Since the TOPS tax was first approved, it has become the city's main revenue source for acquiring, developing and maintaining parks, trails and open spaces. Money from the city's general fund, which was used for these purposes in the past, now mainly pays for overhead costs at the city parks and recreation department. Some state lottery money is also available to maintain city parks.

The open-space tax approved in 1997 remains in effect until 2009, but most of the money that will be collected in the next five years has already been spent. A large chunk --$13.5 million -- went to last year's purchase of Red Rock Canyon, which is set to open to the public late this summer.

Putman defends the decision to spend the money up front, saying the open-space parcels purchased under the program had to be bought and preserved as they became available.

Overall, the city has spent about $35 million to preserve approximately 4,000 acres of open space under the TOPS program. That money has been leveraged to secure another $39 million in grants, gifts and discounts on land that the city probably wouldn't have gotten without TOPS, Putman says.

Unless overturned, the tax extension approved last year would ensure that revenue for trails, parks and open spaces continues to flow into city coffers through 2025. High on the city's wish list for near-future acquisitions is the 640-acre Section 16 open space, adjacent to Red Rock Canyon.

But missing out on Section 16 and other open spaces isn't all that will happen if Bruce wins his lawsuit, Putman says. Without the TOPS tax, he says, the city won't be able to build or maintain numerous neighborhood parks and larger community parks, sports complexes and trails.

If that's the case, the same citizen activists who have backed TOPS in the past would probably try to put the tax back on the ballot, Putman predicts. In the meantime, however, the city's backlog of parks development and maintenance would grow. It's a backlog, Putman says, that keeps growing as the city continues to expand.

"We're just trying to meet the demands of the community," Putman said.

Doom and gloom

Bruce, however, isn't moved by the city's doom-and-gloom scenario.

"Good," he said when asked about the possibility that the city might not buy any more open spaces. "We've got plenty of open space."

As for the city's claims that it can't maintain parks, Bruce says he doesn't buy it. "It's all nonsense. It's all just emotional claptrap."

Even if he wins, the city can always go back to the ballot before the current tax expires in 2009, Bruce says. But the bottom line, for Bruce, is that the city lied when it told voters last year's referendum wasn't for a tax increase.

"In the year 2009, you're going to be paying more taxes" than if the referendum hadn't passed, he pointed out. "That's a tax increase. ... Nothing justifies lying to the voters."

If the city wins, Bruce says he'll appeal. But he's confident that won't be necessary.

"It's a slam-dunk case," he said.

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