All along, those who care deeply about the value of abundant, well-maintained parks in Colorado Springs have looked forward to 2017 as their Payback Year. Finally, after a depressed decade that began with severe, recession-driven budget cuts, followed by year after year of trying to satisfy rising public expectations with poverty-level resources, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Or so it seemed.
At last, local parks supporters had been led to believe, it was their turn to ask voters for help. Their turn to submit a ballot proposal allowing the city to better care for its 136 neighborhood parks, eight community parks, seven regional parks and 48 open-space areas. The only condition: Come to the city in January 2017 with proof of strong public support, and Council would put a parks measure on the April municipal election ballot.
In recent months, we've known that the parks community, led by the Colorado Trust for Public Land and the Trails and Open Space Coalition, has been building its case. Besides assessing needs and campaign strategy, that meant investing in a credible poll to determine the level of public support.
That poll confirmed what we've always known: Colorado Springs residents care about parks and realize their value to the city and its quality of life.
Voters were asked in December about two proposals, both for 10 years — a 0.1 percent sales tax (one cent for every $10 spent) or a 0.2 percent increase (one cent for every $5 spent) — to enhance parks funding. The lesser proposal, costing the typical household about $1 a month, would produce $8 million a year; the higher measure would double those numbers, costing a family $2 a month and providing $16 million a year.
The results: 67 percent yes to 29 percent no for the smaller proposal, 56 percent yes to 35 percent no for the bigger one. For the $8 million annual plan, that 67 percent support included 43 percent answering "total yes" and 24 percent "definitely yes" (no maybes), with 18 percent "total no" and 11 percent "definitely no."
Trying not to be greedy, parks backers chose the smaller plan. But now it might not get a chance. City Council agreed to discuss Tuesday (after the Indy deadline) whether to have the city attorney prepare the measure's wording, which would have to be approved by Jan. 24 to go on the ballot. But the chances of that happening were considered slim at best.
Why? Apparently it's about apprehension, not being against parks.
From all indications, the city will have a large surplus in TABOR (Taxpayer's Bill of Rights) revenue for 2016, so Mayor John Suthers wants to ask voters to (a) let the city keep the surplus and (b) defer that money to stormwater-related needs. Suthers also feels infrastructure must continue to be a higher priority, though that 2015 ballot issue, 2C, wouldn't have to be renewed until 2020. Also, the TABOR surplus wouldn't mean an extra penny out of your pocket, because the money already is in city coffers. This is just another example of TABOR's anti-growth consequence, penalizing the city for a successful year.
Without a cluttered ballot, then, what's wrong with multiple proposals? In the name of economic recovery, fixing recession-caused problems, why not put the two measures on the ballot — keeping the TABOR surplus for stormwater and requesting 1/10th of a cent per dollar for parks? All who care about Colorado Springs and its future should be happy to support both.
Instead, we're hearing, it's not worth the gamble because one might drag the other (or both) to defeat. From his recent statements, Suthers appears determined to oppose any tax proposals (such as adding to the Lodgers and Automobile Rentals Tax, or LART, which also would make huge sense because tourists would pay it) until 2C is renewed for five more years.
The concerns might make more sense in shaky economic times, but Colorado Springs is on a roll now, with a 10-year high for new housing permits in 2016 — up 18 percent over 2015. More homes mean more people and more parks to maintain. Also, that credible poll shows public support for the parks question by a 67-29 percent margin. My guess is, most if not all candidates for Council district seats would prefer to be pro-parks.
With the deadline nearing, this might be a good time to call your district's Councilor, as well as at-large reps Merv Bennett, Tom Strand and Bill Murray, and encourage them to be proactive.
Let's also ask Council this: Why be skittish? Why not put the parks proposal on the ballot, have supporters make the case, and let voters decide?
Doing that shouldn't require much courage. Just determined leadership.