Ballot issue would transfer city, county park authority

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The Trails and Open Space Coalition, a long-established nonprofit that spearheaded a 1997 campaign to create a dedicated city tax to fund trails, parks and open space, is on the campaign trail again.

The group is crafting a “sustainable parks initiative,” a proposed ballot issue that may transfer county and city parks to a new regional authority, or simply provide an enhanced and secure funding stream from a new tax designated for park maintenance and operations.

While the exact legal structure has yet to be decided, TOSC Executive Director Susan Davies said the present funding crisis is irremediable without a new funding source.

“The city cut its general fund support for the parks budget by 84 percent from 2008 to 2010,” she said, “while the county’s budget has shrunk by 68 percent. We don’t think that those numbers are going to improve much.”

The coalition is considering three different models.

A “regional service authority” would be a countywide entity with its own elected board of directors. The state legislature would have to authorize its creation, meaning that it couldn’t be presented to voters until November of 2011. Such authorities are usually funded through local property taxes, although local voters have not embraced property tax increases in the past.

A “legislative district” would also require legislative action. Its structure would be similar to that of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, but with a board that would include both local elected officials and city/county residents. Funding for the authority would be put before voters during 2011.

The third option, TOPS 2, is less complex. Like its popular predecessor, the initiative would funnel tax revenues to the city and county. Sharp restrictions would be placed upon the new funds, mandating that they be placed in special revenue funds, not general funds. Ninety percent of the funds would be used for maintenance and operations, and only 10 percent could be used for administration. City and county would retain their parks departments, and would not be required to transfer parks, open space, and trail corridors to a newly-created entity.

Davies said that TOPS 2 might be the best option.

“There’s a lot of support for TOPS out there,” she said, “and the name alone would be very helpful.”

Although TOPS 2 could theoretically be placed on the November ballot, Davies and TOSC advocacy director Bill Koerner would prefer to wait until 2011.

“There are a lot of questions to answer still,” Koerner said, “and we’d rather wait for another year and do it right. For example, our first estimates were that the parks would need $24 million annually, and that figure is too high. We need to get it down.”

Ideally, Koerner said, voters would be asked to approve a dedicated sales tax of no more than 3/10th percent.

Davies acknowledged that any of the three proposals would create another revenue silo, further fragmenting government and reducing the ability of local elected officials to alter their budgets.

“That’s true,” said Davies, “but that’s what the voters want.”