Stormwater effort takes hold

Flood waters in Manitou Springs last year came from storms hovering over the Waldo Canyon fire burn scar.

Flood waters in Manitou Springs last year came from storms hovering over the Waldo Canyon fire burn scar.

The Pikes Peak Regional Drainage Authority (PPRDA), aka the Pikes Peak Regional Stormwater Authority, aka the Pikes Peak Regional Flood Control Authority is, like the summer floods that it seeks to mitigate, building momentum.

At Monday’s City Council work session, Councilors considered and commented on a proposed intergovernmental agreement establishing the PPRDA. The draft agreement will be presented to regional member governments, and will eventually be brought in its final form before the Board of County Commissioners.

It seems likely that the commissioners will put it on the November ballot and let the voters decide the issue.

Longtime civic activist Dave Munger, who has led the Citizens Stormwater advisory Committee for the past two years, presented the draft IGA to City Council. He was followed by Chief of Staff Steve Cox, who called upon Council to support Mayor Steve Bach’s city-only infrastructure fix.

The two presentations were very different. Munger was confident and relaxed, apparently sure of Council’s support. Cox seemed hoarse and dispirited, as befits one who has been delivering an unpalatable message to unreceptive audiences.

Munger recited the now-familiar numbers that have driven the proposal since it was originally conceived two years ago.

Noting that a 2012 analysis by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the regional stormwater infrastructure a grade of D-, he estimated that rebuilding and maintaining it would require approximately $50 million annually for the next 30 years.

Such a commitment could be effectively met by a county stormwater fee levied on all improved real property. The fee would based on impermeable surface, and is expected to cost the owner of an “average” single family residence approximately $10 per month. Rates for commercial and nonprofit use haven’t been determined.

“Stormwater isn’t the only infrastructure problem we have,” Munger said, “but we can’t afford to lose more lives and property. Stormwater has a dramatic effect on our personal safety and also affects our economy. [This measure] is a doable way of addressing our stormwater problems now.”

Council seemed to agree. President Keith King suggested some clarifying language for the eventual ballot issue, and Joel Miller expressed concern that the Authority’s board of directors could raise rates without an eventual public vote, but none of the nine councilmembers expressed conceptual disagreement with the proposal.

“We’re proposing that there be a late June gathering of elected officials [to discuss final IGA language],” said Munger. “Ultimately, there will be seven parties to this agreement.”

In an earlier interview, Munger had stressed that the draft agreement was just that — a draft.

“By the time we’re finished,” he said cheerfully, “at least seven lawyers will have gone over it.”

Making the mayor’s pitch

Cox started by recapitulating an equally familiar set of numbers. Unfunded city capital improvement needs, he stressed, amount to more than $1.3 billion. Public works, including streets, transit and engineering, comprise 52 percent of the total, followed by stormwater (26 percent), parks (11 percent) public safety (6 percent) and information technology (5 percent).

For more than a year, Bach has suggested funding infrastructure and stormwater needs with a $175 million bond issue, in effect extending community improvement bonds. Proceeds would be spent on the most urgent infrastructure projects during the next five years, but the bonds wouldn’t be paid off for 20 years, with yearly debt service of approximately $14.9 million.

Bach’s idea never has gained traction. There was no answer to what comes next, since $175 million would fund only 15 percent of the backlog. Advocates of a regional stormwater authority have focused on a long-term, sustainable approach, which would not require elected leaders to revisit the issue a few years hence.

“You can only go to the well once,” said Councilor Don Knight. “[Voters] don’t see the SCIP (Springs Community Improvement Program bonds) five-year extension as being sustainable.”

“By extending the bond issue, we may be hurting ourselves,” Miller said. “I like the idea of having $15 million a year that we’re now paying for debt service.”

“We’ve been holding meetings since 2012, and we’ve invited the executive branch to every one, and they never showed up.” 

– Val Snider

A capital improvements tax

Perhaps sensing that extending the bond issue was a nonstarter, Bach has revived an idea that Colorado Springs voters repealed 23 years ago — a dedicated sales tax to fund capital improvements.

Urged on by Douglas Bruce, residents voted in 1991 to phase out a half-cent sales tax specifically dedicated to capital improvements that had been imposed by City Council several years before. In the years since, capital improvement projects have been the red-headed stepchildren of city government, always last in line for funding.

Bach has shifted his focus, if not his basic contention. He calls the tax another way to provide “a holistic, one-step approach to solving the city’s entire CIP backlog.”

“The much-publicized separate stormwater funding initiative brought forward this year will only solve a part of a much bigger critical infrastructure problem,” Bach said in a release.

A 3/4-cent sales tax would raise approximately $52.5 million annually, while a 1 percent tax could raise $70 million. Bach suggested either tax would sunset in five years unless voters agreed to extend them.

Council wasn’t impressed by the new package, though Knight gave Mayor Bach credit for introducing the dreaded “T” word, which Bach had steadfastly resisted for three years.

The usually low-key Cox became emotional at one point, saying, “We’re tired of crumbling infrastructure, broken streets and unmaintained parks. Stormwater is only 26 percent of our problems. It has been suggested that we wait our turn. You’ve had a laser focus on stormwater. How long are we going to wait? One year, two years, five years? We’re at a tipping point.”

Cox emphasized that the executive branch is ready to sit down with Council and stormwater advocates and craft a comprehensive solution. That didn’t impress Val Snider, Council’s liaison to the citizen-driven stormwater task force.

“We’ve been holding meetings since 2012, and we’ve invited the executive branch to every one, and they never showed up,” Snider said angrily. “I’m aghast that you’re coming forward with this now.”

Mayor’s power diminished

Polls commissioned by the task force show overwhelming support for a regional, fee-based stormwater authority. That has apparently sent a powerful message to councilors and county commissioners, persuading them to focus on stormwater. Bach’s proposals have no significant support, and since he hasn’t been at the table helping to formulate the IGA, the final document is unlikely to please him. Section 7A of the IGA follows:

“In order to ensure that the goals of the PPRDA are accomplished in a timely manner, the financial burden on fee payers is minimized, and the public benefits of drainage control are maximized, each of the Parties will be required to pay a fee based upon impervious surface, as described in Sections 4C and D, above.”

This “maintenance of effort” clause will require some parties to make a cash payment to the Authority annually. The amount could be based on the amount of publicly owned impervious surface (possibly including roads, gutters, curbs, sidewalks, parking lots and rooftops) in the jurisdiction, or based on previous general fund contributions to stormwater funding. The projected bill to the city: about $3 million annually.

Demanding an annual cash contribution in lieu of an undertaking to maintain existing funding may seem unusual, but the clause is aimed at Mayor Bach.

Earlier this year, the board of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority sent a formal letter of protest to Bach, charging the city with failing to adhere to “maintenance of effort” provisions regarding transit funding. The three council members on the board signed the letter, although City Council had approved the budget containing the transit cuts. Clause 7A is aimed at preventing Bach or his successor from cutting existing stormwater funding.

In addition, Bach is unlikely to embrace the proposed governmental structure. He would be one of 13 board members, along with six councilors, two county commissioners and four elected officials from smaller jurisdictions. Bach would have a vote and a voice, and that’s it.

In retrospect, the mayor may regret that he didn’t make a deal when he had the leverage to do so. Had he participated in the process, he might have three seats on the board and firm support for a future city infrastructure funding package.

But he gambled on his ability to turn the tide — and he may have lost the bet. nCSBJ

One Response to Stormwater effort takes hold

  1. ok if i do the math then it would need the following:
    total about 70 million a year dedicated to our infrastructure. Where would that money come from:
    15 million from savings per year on interest payments from the city
    5 million from the county and other towns in El paso county
    rest could come from sales tax (0.7%)or increased fees fro new developments out east to be voted on every 5 years. That would fund 350 million in the first 5 years which would be a step into the right direction.

    peter miller
    June 14, 2014 at 3:28 pm