It's no secret to city parks users that our city parks are in need of repairs, maintenance and development. After taking huge budget cuts during the last recession, the parks department was forced to stop watering grass and picking up trash, and forced to suspend trail and park maintenance and improvements. Park use continued to increase all the while, tied to our ever-growing population. The Springs continually ranks high on list of desirable places to live, and locals rank our parks, trails and open spaces as one of the biggest attractions. And though the last couple of years have seen funding for city parks slowly increase — at least the sprinklers are on and the trash is picked up — they have not yet risen to pre-2008 levels. The cost of the back-log of repairs and projects for city parks is in the tens of millions of dollars.
You've heard it before, we're loving our parks to death.
For almost a year, the parks department, along with a collection of citizens and groups with a history of supporting or working with the parks department, have been exploring methods of providing additional funding for the department. (Disclosure: The author is a part of this group).
After much debate, discussion and research, the group proposed a special sales tax of .1 or .2 percent of a cent. The proposal includes a ten-year expiration provision, and for oversight of the additional revenue by a citizens oversight committee and independent audits. This additional revenue, would raise $8 to $16 million per year for the parks department, costing the average person $13 to $26 per year, depending on which level of tax was implemented.
The proposal includes language stating that the money would be placed in a dedicated fund to be used only for covering the cost of protecting lands that conserve water, protecting and maintaining natural areas, wildlife habitat and forests, repairing and improving regional and neighborhood parks, and recreation opportunities such as trails, sports programs and facilities.
A poll conducted in late November and early December shows that the majority of taxpayers, from 18- to age 55-years-old and older, including those who identify themselves as Democrats, Republicans and independents, and across all but one city council districts, support paying a little extra for city parks.
However, to implement a tax for parks requires a vote of the people, and that requires the question be placed on the ballot. The quickest way for the question to make the April election would be to have it placed on the ballot by city council. Therein lies the rub.
City Council and Mayor Suthers, while recognizing the need for increased funding for parks, have been hesitant to consider referring this issue to the voters. But placing this question on the ballot doesn't necessarily indicate whether they support the proposal or not, but it follows TABOR's intent of letting the taxpayers choose for themselves. City council should allow voters to decide, and hopefully they will. The mayor can ask council to put it on the ballot, but he can't do it himself.
Colorado Springs is a city that relies heavily on tourism, but also is in need of job growth. Amenities, such as clean, well maintained city parks help to attract businesses that weigh "quality of life" when deciding where to locate offices. Providing increased funding will also allow the Parks Department to perform more work to mitigate the risk of fire and flood potential, making the Springs a safer place to live.
Ultimately, it should be up to the voters to decide whether they are willing to pay a little more to help the parks department accomplish it's mission. Hopefully, city council and the mayor will feel the same way.
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Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor, business owner and author of Hiking Bob's Tips, Tricks and Trails, available via his website. He has lived in Colorado Springs for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), Instagram (@HikingBob_CO) or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: firstname.lastname@example.org.