Hard to justify more than stormwater on November ballot

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In small groups, meetings and conversations across Colorado Springs, deep discussions have been ongoing about what ballot issue (or issues) should go before local voters in the November election.

The suspense won’t last much longer. By the end of July, El Paso County’s commissioners must decide as required by state law what countywide questions to present as ballot measures.

That doesn’t mean they have to support any or all propositions — a common misperception. In reality, the commissioners merely have to decide whether any single issue is worth submitting to the electorate for an up-or-down verdict.

And that brings us to the big choice hanging over the five commissioners.

Should they go along with a fast-tracked proposal, pushed by Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach and an emerging “new” group called Colorado Springs Forward, for a 1-cent sales tax increase that would take care of major infrastructure improvements as well as stormwater needs?

Or should the commissioners focus on a stormwater-only proposition, submitted by the Pikes Peak Regional Stormwater Task Force after two years of diligent work, that would mean a monthly fee to property owners?

If this were only a common-sense decision, it would be a no-brainer. The commissioners would side with the task force, which put forth its recommendation back in March. It would mean a monthly fee averaging around $10-$12 a month for property owners, planning to generate about $50 million a year for at least 20 years (that would be in the range of $1 billion, at least).

Bach has refused to support that proposal, despite the fact it resulted from two years of thorough analysis, identifying project needs and pushing higher priorities to the top. That followed the example of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, which went to voters in 2004 with a long-vetted list of road projects to be addressed over 10 years, and then was renewed in 2012 with a second batch of projects starting in 2015.

Now the mayor believes that the infrastructure problems are equally severe and deserve the same priority level. The city has its own list of infrastructure work, and nobody is arguing its legitimacy. The concern is that, because (a) the infrastructure portion has been thrown together quickly and (b) it would mean a 1-cent countywide tax increase, its odds of approval would be shaky at best.

There’s also the issue of Pueblo, which is watching to see what happens. If leaders there don’t see a firm commitment to stormwater from Colorado Springs, they could take legal action in an effort to shut down the Southern Delivery System pipeline project.

Where do the commissioners stand? Chairman Dennis Hisey (who represents southern El Paso County) and Amy Lathen have led the commissioners on this. Back in March, interviewed by the Pueblo Chieftain, Hisey said, “People recognize this is a problem for us, and to not address the problem as elected leaders is not acceptable.”

Last week, in an email exchange, Hisey sent this to CSBJ: “I am committed to keeping an open mind about the possibility of taking the broader approach to our infrastructure problems and am expecting to hear soon the results of a recent poll to see how our citizens feel. That said, our ever-growing need of addressing stormwater, particularly with the newly increased threats of flooding and runoff due to two large burn scars, makes it critical that we address that issue as soon as possible and I believe we need to go to the voters with a solution this November.”

Several months ago, the task force’s stormwater plan looked in perfect position. Polls had indicated broad favorable public support.

Now the landscape has changed. Colorado Springs Forward has siphoned some backers from the task force’s coalition. That faction now believes it has the polling evidence to justify usurping the stormwater-only ballot issue and turning that “monthly fee” into a much larger 1-cent sales tax for the entire county.

But it’s a gamble, because tax-hike propositions rapidly assembled without public involvement do not have a good track record here. (The most glaring exception was Sheriff Terry Maketa’s public-safety ballot issue in 2012, which rode the well-timed tsunami of Maketa’s post-Waldo Canyon fire popularity to victory.)

Something tells me the county commissioners might not be swayed by Colorado Springs Forward — a potentially ill-advised name for a group frantically pushing an El Paso County proposal. Something also tells me the commissioners have much more sensitivity for stormwater and the need to placate Pueblo.

So why not move ahead with stormwater for the whole county in November, then prepare the infrastructure proposal for just Colorado Springs in the city election next April?

That could produce two major successes, instead of rolling the dice on one all-encompassing ballot issue that, if it loses, could hurt the region for years to come.