Civic activists, El Paso County elected officials and the business team of the Regional Stormwater Task Force rolled out the heavy artillery at Monday’s informal City Council meeting, but their target was absent.
Mayor Steve Bach was in Scottsdale, Ariz., taking a week off to celebrate both his 70th birthday and, with his spouse Suzi, their 29th wedding anniversary.
Bach has been highly skeptical of the apparent rush to identify, prioritize and fund a regional stormwater entity, fearing city residents would pay for county projects of little direct benefit to Springs taxpayers.
While members of the city administration were circumspect in discussing the problem, others were vocal in support of a regional solution.
City Public Works Director Helen Migchelbrink summarized the work of the task force, which has identified hundreds of specific stormwater capital projects throughout the region. Total estimated cost: $906 million, including $686 million within the city, $108 million in unincorporated parts of the city, $31 million in Colorado Springs Utilities projects, and $46 million in other jurisdictions, including Monument, the Air Force Academy, Fountain and Manitou Springs.
Migchelbrink was blunt.
“This is a really serious problem,” she told City Council. “It’s going to rain someday, and we may be coming to you for emergency appropriations — we could have a problem on Douglas Creek that could cost [as much as] $6 million.”
A private engineering firm will be hired to assess the task force’s conclusions, paying particular attention to cost estimates.
“All of us want to make sure we were right with the numbers,” Migchelbrink stressed. “We don’t want to say that we have an $800 million problem when we don’t.”
Pikes Peak National Bank president Robin Roberts presented the business team’s report.
Developers, she explained, built the initial infrastructure, handed it over to the city and the city failed to maintain, repair, or replace it. Historic funding shortfalls have put the city in an untenable position, as much of the drainage structure has reached the end of its useful life.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has issued a report card, grading the city’s stormwater system using seven different metrics.
The grades: capacity, D-; operations and maintenance, D+; condition, F; drainage basin planning program and funding, F; public safety, D-; resilience, D. Overall, D-.
Roberts estimated overall regional funding needs for basic maintenance, permits and planning at $11.5 million, without allocating any money toward capital improvement projects. Available sustainable funding amounts to $7.85 million, not including one-time grants from state and federal governments.
Roberts, who clashed angrily with Bach when he stunned task force members several weeks ago by announcing that their job was done, concluded her presentation by suggesting that the time had come to move to “Phase II” of the project. In that phase, the task force would involve, educate and utilize citizens and business leaders, identify sustainable and workable funding mechanisms, prioritize capital projects and secure a sustainable regional solution.
Speaking for the citizens team, another subset of the overall group, Jan Doran of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations spoke in apocalyptic terms.
“There are neighborhoods that have stormwater problems that are destroying them,” she said. “Regional capital needs are growing exponentially. There’s an elephant in the room — this has to be a regional effort. And we’re sorry — I don’t want to use the “T” word, but…”
Diann Butlak, also speaking for CONO, noted that as many as 5,000 property owners in and around the Venetian Village neighborhood may have to purchase federal flood insurance for an aggregate cost of $5 million. That’s because the Templeton Gap floodway, which protects the area from severe flooding, needs major repairs, estimated to cost $3.5 million.
You’d think that Venetian Village residents would be solidly behind a stormwater enterprise of some kind, but that wasn’t the case a few years ago.
“When we were [making the case for] the stormwater enterprise, we held a community meeting in Venetian Village,” said Council President Scott Hente. “Only 10 or 12 people showed up, if that.”
Another conspicuously absent elephant in the room: Pueblo. If the Pueblo County commissioners decide to play hardball, and insist that Colorado Springs live up to its commitment to upgrade drainage infrastructure, the Southern Delivery System might be at risk.
Butlak displayed a devastating chart comparing per capita stormwater funding in Colorado Springs with other Colorado jurisdictions.
Before voters effectively eliminated the fee-based stormwater enterprise in 2009, Colorado Springs spent $40.33 per capita on stormwater projects. Colorado’s 10 most populous cities spend an average of $57.38 per capita.
At present, Colorado Springs allocates only $4.63 per capita.
For Hente, as well as for Councilor Bernie Herpin, it’s déjà vu all over again.
“I remember several presentations just like the one we’ve just heard over the years,” said Hente with a wry smile. “Nothing changes but the numbers.”
Herpin noted that, when he first ran for City Council in 1997, “most of the questionnaires I got from different groups had the same question: What will you do about stormwater funding?”
County Commissioners Amy Lathen and Dennis Hisey also addressed Council, calling for a regional approach to stormwater problems.
“This has been an extraordinary effort,” said Lathen, praising the team that identified and created cost estimates for every major stormwater capital need throughout the county, “and we are absolutely moving forward.”
A skeptical Angela Dougan spent nearly 10 minutes back-and-forthing with Lathen, trying to get Lathen on the record as favoring a tax increase. The poised, wily Lathen easily parried Dougan, but it was clear that the lines of battle were being drawn.
The numbers are so large, and available revenue so small, that the only solution may be a regional dedicated property tax. Several speakers praised the concept, and suggested that the taxing entity borrow the structure of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority.
Like PPRTA, the entity would present the voters with a list of specific projects to be completed within a defined period. It would be governed by a board consisting of regional elected officials.
How much funding would it need?
If regional unfunded capital needs amount to $906 million, annual tax revenues on the order of $40 million would be barely sufficient to repair and upgrade the system and deal with emergency situations within the expected lifespans of City Council’s youngest members. Given that city property tax collections currently amount to slightly less than $20 million, that’s a daunting number.
Yet, as Butlak pointed out, city property taxes comprise a tiny fraction of total property tax collections in the city. School districts, the county and various special improvement districts account for the lion’s share of property tax receipts.
A regional entity is unlikely to please Bach, at least judging by the comments of his two strongest supporters on Council. Tim Leigh and Angela Dougan decried what they saw as a rush to put a tax issue on the ballot.
“I think I fell out of a stormwater storm and landed in a tax-and-spend party,” said Leigh after the meeting.
Yet no one present dismissed the gravity of the problem, despite the failure of previous efforts to secure sustainable and adequate funding for stormwater needs.
“This is an ongoing problem that is getting bigger and bigger,” said Councilor Jan Martin.
What if efforts to fund stormwater again fall short? Does it mean the region will plod along and wait for a repeat of the historic flood of 1935, hoping to be bailed out with billions in federal disaster relief?
“You could say that’s what the voters have decided,” said Bernie Herpin. “After all, we helped pay for Sandy, rebuilding all those houses on the Jersey Shore — so maybe they’ll pay for us.”