C’mon, fess up, did you pay your bill from the Stormwater Enterprise? It’s OK, neither did I.
Oh, I got the bill in the mail some time ago, and I put it aside to pay, and then I just didn’t.
I guess I had a Doug Bruce moment.
As you may know, ol’ Mr. Antitax, the Dougster himself, claims that the so-called stormwater fee isn’t a fee, but a tax; and as such, should have been authorized by a vote of the people.
He’s working to get an initiative on the November ballot to overturn it and prohibit the imposition of future such “fees.”
So is it a fee or is it a tax?
The city claims that it’s a fee, just like similar fees collected by hundreds of jurisdictions. It is, supporters say, a fair and reasonable way to pay for the construction and maintenance of the city’s stormwater drainage system. It’s far more equitable than using sales tax revenue, because property owners are assessed on the basis of impermeable surface, and therefore pay according to the amount of runoff generated by their improved property.
Let’s do a little analysis.
A fee is a charge levied on a service that if you don’t pay for is withdrawn. If you don’t pay your utility bill, eventually they’ll shut you off. If you want to drive up the Pikes Peak Highway, you pay at the gate or turn around and go home.
But what happens if you don’t pay your stormwater bill? Will the city build a dam around your house to stop the runoff? Will council direct the weather gods to stop rain from falling on your property?
There’s no service to be withdrawn, so the city, in its capacity as bill collector, has no recourse — other than putting a lien on your house.
But wait a minute! This is a “service” that I didn’t ask for, kind of like a magazine subscription that I never ordered. The subscription peddlers, not to mention the credit card companies or department stores, can’t place a lien on your house. Their recourse is through the courts and, if they can prove that you owe them the dough, they can get a judgment.
But what happens if you don’t pay your property taxes? Eventually, you lose the property.
Governments at all levels have settled, efficient and largely unavoidable ways of collecting taxes, and most of us would rather pay than fight. That’s as it should be — much of what government does is essential to the functioning of society and such tasks as public safety, transportation infrastructure, flood control and drainage infrastructure can scarcely be provided by private enterprise.
And that’s why the Dougster’s right.
The Stormwater Enterprise is providing an essential governmental function, not an optional service, like a ride up the Pikes Peak Highway. The “fee” is a thinly disguised property tax, which, by law, cannot be instituted by the city without voter approval.
So why didn’t our solidly Republican, stolidly conservative City Council simply put it to a vote?
They were pretty sure that the courts would uphold the so-called fee, illogical though it might seem to the non-lawyers among us.
But more significantly, they thought they’d lose at the polls, and the consequences of such a loss seemed unthinkable.
Absent this new revenue source, the city would find it difficult to maintain, much less improve, our ancient and dysfunctional drainage structures. Even minor floods could cause major problems and major flood events, like those of 1935 and 1965, would overwhelm the city.
Our negotiations with Pueblo about the proposed Southern Delivery System would simply end, since Pueblo’s major concern has to do with increased flows in Fountain Creek. Without a well-funded stormwater utility, the city could make no credible proposals to control, or diminish, those flows.
SDS would never be built, and Colorado Springs Utilities would be forced, at ruinous cost, to augment water supplies with recycled sewer water.
It’s easy to understand the decision, but it was still wrong.
Too often, council sees its relationship with the voters as that of adults trying to make willful children behave. The voters, they often think, are too dumb to understand the issues, or too lazy find out or too full of irrational anti-tax prejudice to do what’s right, so let’s not bother their pretty little heads with all this complicated stuff.
Maybe so, but that’s not its job. Council’s job is to comply with the law, even if such compliance proves disastrous.
If Springs residents are willing to cut off their noses to spite their faces, so be it. Should the consequences be as dire as forecast, the voters will eventually see the light and correct their earlier mistake. That’s democracy, with all its warts and imperfections.
That said, if you’re going to flaunt the law, you might as well do it right.
At the end of April, only 75 percent of those billed by the Stormwater Enterprise had paid. Of the $4 million expected, $2.7 million had been collected.
That’s pretty abysmal. Imagine having a business with a 90 day delinquency rate of 30 percent. You’d have to be extremely well-capitalized or have compromising photos of your banker to stay in business, much less prosper.
But had they simply folded the new enterprise and its bills into utilities, collections wouldn’t have been a problem. Perhaps the administration didn’t want utilities to run to a city department, and perhaps utilities didn’t want to have anything to do with it either.
That was fine with council. It never anticipated that, in our notoriously God-fearing, law-abiding city, so many folks would refuse to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
And now that the Dougster’s out making trouble, does council have a problem?
Of the 33,000 (of 132,000 billed) no-pays, how many haven’t paid because of principle, how many because they’re broke and how many because they just forgot or didn’t realize it was a bill? My guess is that the principled non-payers are a tiny minority and that most of my fellow scofflaws will eventually pay up.
So the city will prevail. It seems unfair. It’s bad enough that it’s happy to ignore the law, worse still that it’s such a bunch of incompetent bunglers. After all, if our leaders are a bunch of crooks, shouldn’t they be at least as good at it as Tony Soprano?
They’re not, and that’s a good thing. But given a few more opportunities, they might get good at it — a pretty good argument for term limits, come to think of it.
Meanwhile, a quick personal message from yours truly to 1) the Dougster and to 2) the Stormwater Enterprise:
Doug: You’re right, but you lose again.
Stormwater Guy: The check’s in the mail!
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.