City’s math doesn’t work for stormwater

Filed under: News,Print | Tags:

In a letter last week to Pueblo County commissioners, Mayor Steve Bach and Council President Keith King patted themselves on the back for the city’s well-funded stormwater program.

“All told,” the two leaders wrote, “the City of Colorado Springs will be devoting nearly $46.5 million to stormwater projects in 2013.”

Why should the Pueblo County commissioners care about our city’s stormwater funding? And why should we care what they think about it, anyway?

The answer is ominously simple.

Colorado Springs has a long, contentious history with Pueblo over Fountain Creek. Runoff from city streets, sidewalks, gutters, rooftops and parking lots ends up in Fountain Creek, as do sewage spills from city wastewater treatment plants and chemical spills from city manufacturers. It all finds its way to Pueblo.

Thanks to hard-surface runoff and treated wastewater discharge, year-round flows in the Fountain have increased substantially in recent decades. Not only do such flows increase erosion downstream, they increase the risk of catastrophic flooding in Pueblo.

When Colorado Springs leaders came, hats in hand, to the Pueblo commissioners a decade ago seeking a 1041 permit to construct the Southern Delivery System, negotiations focused on stormwater mitigation. Approval hinged upon the city’s commitment to upgrade its stormwater drainage system.

It was clear that such a commitment would require a dedicated revenue source, so the city created the stormwater enterprise. Suitably mollified, Pueblo County approved the permit — only to be blindsided when Springs voters in 2009 eliminated funding.

The city has yet to figure out how to live up to its commitment, and Pueblo County commissioners may be losing patience. That’s why Bach and King sent their fawning letter, and that’s why Bach announced that he might (maybe, possibly, if he’s absolutely sure that there’s no other alternative) ask the voters for a new tax to fund stormwater projects.

But isn’t $46 million enough?

It’s more than enough. Unfortunately, though, more than 80 percent of the funding that Bach and King tout consists of one-time federal grants, accounting tricks, protection of wildfire-damaged Utilities infrastructure, and salaries for city employees. By our calculations, $36.7 million of the total amount comes from city enterprises, one-time grants and transfers. A further $2.08 million includes city salaries, operations, and “expenses related to the city’s MS4 permit (education supplies, USGS stream flow and rainfall monitoring, mapping etc.).”

The letter concludes with this line:

$45,750,507 Total City Contributions to Stormwater Funding 2013.”

Our arithmetic is a little different. One-time city funding, which includes an $8.8 million draw from the city’s fund balance (i.e., reserve fund) and a $2.1 million one-time transfer from the dissolved Springs Ranch General Improvement District total $10.9 million. Colorado Springs Utilities kicked in $12.8 million, much directed at protecting infrastructure. Other funding sources included federal grants ($15.66 million), Pikes Peak Highway drainage projects and Colorado Springs Airport drainage projects.

That leaves $7.48 million from the city’s general fund. We didn’t include city salaries and street divisions operation and maintenance funds in the general fund total, as did Bach and King.

Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace believes only $2 million of the total is earmarked for projects that specifically address Pueblo’s needs. Given that the city committed to completely address such needs by 2016, when SDS was originally slated for completion, that’s not even a drop in bucket.

County commissioners are chosen in partisan elections. All three Pueblo commissioners are Democrats, and two (Pace and Liane “Buffie” McFadyen) served in the state Legislature. Given the Legislature’s hyper-partisan nature, it’s doubtful either commissioner harbors warm and fuzzy feelings for our city.

In his fight to torpedo the Stormwater Enterprise, anti-tax advocate Douglas Bruce derisively referred to it as a “rain tax.” City voters agreed, and today, the city’s stormwater funding backlog is nearly $700 million.

Mayor Bach and City Council have few options. The Waldo Canyon fire is last year’s news. Federal grants now will flow to other communities stricken by natural disasters, and Utilities ratepayers may balk at eight-figure transfers from CSU accounts. Without draconian cuts to essential functions, it’s highly improbable that $40 million can be carved out of the city budget every year to fund stormwater.

The mayor may find himself with no choice but to ask the voters for a tax increase substantial enough to fund a major stormwater program.

And if the voters say no? Pray it doesn’t rain, and hire more attorneys.