Before a packed room in the city administration building Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Steve Bach fired the first salvo as the simmering disagreements over stormwater funding between mayor, City Council, the Board of County Commissioners and the Regional Stormwater Task Force erupted into open warfare.
It began with a somewhat muddled “Stormwater Needs Assessment” by CH2M Hill. The firm had been tasked with identifying and prioritizing stormwater projects on the city “Master Project List.” Noting that some of the projects on the list had been completed, and that others were duplicative, they managed to whittle down the list from 282 to 238 projects. Of those, 154 were placed on the “A’ list, 74 on the B list and 10 on the C and D lists.
Sorting by urgency, CH2M Hill found 34 high-priority projects with a total price tag of $161.9 million, 175 medium-priority costing $310.5 million, and 20 low-priority projects estimated at $62.6 million. The resulting total of $554.7 million is considerably below early estimates of $687.5 million, but that may be less significant than it seems.
While the company’s engineers were able to make reasonably accurate cost estimates for the 34 class A high-priority projects, they found that there was “insufficient information and cost detail in source documents to confirm (other medium-priority) project components, cost. The master project list costs were uncomfirmable and not updated.”
CH2MHill also left one major cost item out of the list entirely. Many drainage structures in the city use large-diameter corrugated metal pipe, and almost all of it is past its design life. It’s an expense that might better be categorized an O & M cost, or subsumed within dozens of other capital projects.
The company also pointed out that the report did not take into account the damage caused by widespread flooding in the city during August and September.
Following CH2MHill, Regional Task Force chair John Cassiani presented the preliminary findings of the group. The presentation contained no surprises; the same report had been given at recent meetings of both elected bodies.
Estimating overall regional stormwater funding needs at $850 million, the task force recommended that a regional stormwater authority be created, with the power to levy fees upon improved property based on impervious surface. The fees would be included in El Paso County property tax bills, thereby minimizing the expense and uncertainty of collection.
Cassiani emphasized that any funding structure must be “sustainable, regional, equitable and address both operations and maintenance and capital needs on an ongoing basis – and be politically acceptable.”
Mayor Bach aggressively questioned Cassiani, asking him whether he was proposing a new county-wide property tax. Cassiani refused to use the T-word, referring to the proposed levy as a fee.
Bach also questioned the proposed structure of the Authority.
“I’m not comfortable with this city abdicating its authority to (a regional entity),” he said. “I’m not comfortable with the PPRTA structure. We have 81 percent of the impervious surface in El Paso County, and 75 percent of the population.”
Bach then brought forth his own proposal, a “hybrid” stormwater authority.
As outlined, it would be a ghost organization, with no staff, no budget, no overall source of funding and no capacity for independent action. “COS executive branch will administer the Authority … projects design and maintenance will be outsourced to the private sector.” Each participant would come up with its own funding.
Colorado Springs would fund improvements within the city by issuing approximately $190 million in general obligation bonds in April 2015, subject to voter approval. Part of the proceeds would go to pay off existing SCIP bonds and pay various fees and costs associated with issuance, leaving about $175 million to spend on capital improvements. The money would be spent between 2015 and 2020, with $100 million dedicated to stormwater, $57.5 million on roads and bridges, $10 million on public safety infrastructure and $5 million on parks.
Bach neatly avoided the D-word (debt) by suggesting that the city would simply be “re-purposing” existing cash flow. He emphasized that stormwater infrastructure is just one of the city’s pressing needs.
“It’s a big part of CIP, but not all,” he said. “We only resurface 2 percent of our roads annually, and we should be doing 10 percent. Parks, roads and bridges – we need to work this out in a holistic way.”
The money would be gone after five years, so what then? Bach optimistically predicted that increased sales tax revenue from natural growth and from the City for Champions projects could fill the gap. If not, he suggested asking the voters to approve a package based on a MAPS (metropolitan area projects) model created by Oklahoma City. It’s suspiciously like (i.e., identical to) the PPRTA – a metropolitan area sales/property tax increase with a sunset provision.
Bach then called upon City Council, the county commissioners and the members of the task force to cancel their town hall meetings to allow the community time to absorb and consider his freshly unveiled proposal.
Stunned and angry, they refused.
After the meeting, Council, the BOCC and the task force reconvened at City Hall and took turns lambasting the mayor’s “October Surprise.”
Asked to summarize Bach’s proposal in one word, Commissioner Amy Lathen was blunt.
“Uninformed,” she said. “He’s never been to a single one of our meetings. He has no idea what we’re doing.”
BOCC Chair Dennis Hisey was more diplomatic: “Inadequate.”
Councilmember Val Snider: “Debt!”
Amplifying his one-word summary, Hisey summed up the position of the three bodies.
“Any approach addressing stormwater on other than a regional basis is a band-aid, “ he said. “If we don’t have dedicated funds for O & M, for example, we’re just repeating the past – funding has to be sustainable.”
Council President Keith King was diplomatic, but unswayed by the mayor’s proposal.
“There’s agreement on a couple of issues,” he said. “We agree we have a problem, and we agree we have to find a solution. But there’s a difference between stormwater and roads and bridges. Roads and bridges don’t move, while stormwater does.”
He also criticized the mayor’s apparent lack of urgency.
“The mayor asked us to defer our meetings,” he noted. “I don’t think that we can. We need to hear from the people.”
Lathen, clearly irritated, expanded on her earlier remarks.
“We’ve been unsuccessful working together with the mayor,” she said. “There has been a lack of information. We want to make sure the facts are clear.”
Council has the power to place the bond issue on the ballot – the mayor does not. Council and/or the commissioners can ask the voters to approve a regional stormwater authority – the mayor cannot. His only option, absent Council cooperation, is to encourage a voter-initiated ballot issue embodying his preferences.