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Polling convinces city leaders to decide now, not later, on stormwater issue

Between the Lines

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For most of the past month, every outward indication has made people think the Colorado Springs City Council will put a stormwater fee proposal on the ballot for the upcoming 2017 election.

With the full support of Mayor John Suthers, Council voted 6-3 last week to adopt an ordinance that resurrects the Stormwater Enterprise, with a follow-up vote planned for the next regular meeting, Aug. 22, on submitting the fee to city voters for approval. Underneath that optimism, however, it was evident the elected leaders weren’t fully committed yet to the ballot measure.
First, they wanted to gather as much polling information as possible, giving them the clearest possible gauge of public support — and opposition.

Monday, the decision was made to go for it. Suthers met privately with Chief of Staff Jeff Greene, Council President Richard Skorman and Councilor Merv Bennett, to weigh the options ahead of Council’s Aug. 22 vote. Some late vibes suggested Suthers and Council might not take the chance.

Then they saw the latest polling done last week by The Tarrance Group, a credible company commissioned by the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC. The key results, from 400 frequent and likely voters: 59 percent said yes, 36 percent no and only 6 percent were unsure upon hearing the likely ballot language; the margin was still 58-38 after pro-and-con details were included. Sixty-six percent gave Suthers a favorable rating to only 16 percent unfavorable; and 56 percent felt Council was doing a good job overall (with 27 percent unfavorable and 17 percent uncertain).
Rest assured, the city’s leaders aren’t in a gambling mood. With mail ballots going out Oct. 16, that gives backers only eight weeks to make their case, while opponents are organized and noisy. But with such a low percentage undecided, that’s a sign almost all voters are knowledgeable.

Suthers and other stormwater supporters realize they can’t afford to lose. Just four months ago, those same voters passed a request to retain up to $12 million in excess tax revenue over the next two years — specifically to funnel into stormwater projects and improvements. Of course, that doesn’t help beyond 2018.
Also, Suthers previously said the city might hold off on sending a stormwater fee to voters until they had a better idea about the status of the Environmental Protection Agency’s lawsuit against Colorado Springs. That legal action, alleging the city hasn’t done enough to manage water quality in Fountain Creek, could lead to a verdict forcing the city to spend even more on stormwater than the $17 million a year already promised and covered by the proposed stormwater fee.

Skorman says it’s obvious now that the EPA lawsuit “might drag on for as long as two or three years,” though the elected leaders hope a positive outcome on the stormwater fee vote might lead to a settlement much sooner. Colorado Springs already has spent upwards of $1 million defending its position, with more to come.

One can see why Suthers might have been skittish, but not so much now. Poll respondents also reacted positively, Skorman says, “to the simpleness of a set fee,” $5 a month for homeowners and $30 an acre for other property. The constituents like having a list of stormwater projects already determined, adding to the accountability factor in a tactic similar to the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority. And voters are glad to hear the stormwater fee would free up much more money in the city budget for other needs, starting with police and fire, not to mention long-range planning.

As Skorman puts it, “If we can get this stormwater done first with dedicated funding, then we can start dealing with other major things we need to do, like affordable housing and transit, to make the city a better place in the future.”

That likely means no other weighty initiatives now from the city. The “new” City Council includes a six-member majority wanting voters to decide the fate of recreational marijuana sales inside city limits. But don’t count on that until later, Skorman says. Suthers and many in the business community don’t want to put it on a ballot, now or ever. They are convinced recreational pot would be detrimental to the city’s image and future.

That’s apparently a debate for another election. For now, Suthers and Skorman want to worry about stormwater and nothing else.

And if that polling is right, they’ll win.

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