After nearly four hours of meandering debate, City Council voted Tuesday afternoon to approve the intergovernmental agreement creating the Pikes Peak Regional Drainage Authority.
Their action appears to make it certain county commissioners will refer the measure to the November ballot.
It’s not often Joel Miller, Andy Pico, Jan Martin, Val Snider, Keith King, Merv Bennett and Jill Gaebler vote together on an important, contentious issue. Only Helen Collins and Don Knight opposed the IGA. Knight felt that the PPRDA board should not have power to change voter-approved allocations. Collins is both principled and unyielding in opposition to new taxes or fees.
Council approval came after a two-year process during which the citizen-driven Stormwater Task Force gathered information, commissioned polls, gave public presentations and made its case for a regional authority patterned on the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority.
Mayor Steve Bach made it clear from the start he wasn’t a fan of the regional approach. Noting that city residents would contribute most funds, and most projects would be within the city, Bach saw it as potentially damaging to city interests. He wasn’t moved by the argument that floodwaters know no political boundaries.
So he sniped from the sidelines, boycotted task force meetings and thereby may have committed a major political error. Had he stepped on board, supported the process and soft-pedaled his concerns, he could have controlled the process.
Yet, as the task force met with residents, the group became increasingly convinced voters would support a stormwater fee. That was confirmed by sophisticated polling, which showed overwhelming support for a regional drainage fee.
“[Support or opposition by politicians] is neutral,” County Commissioner Amy Lathen said Wednesday. “It doesn’t affect how people view the issue.”
Based on those polls, stormwater supporters ignored many of Bach’s reasonable concerns. Had he been part of the process, the task force might have attributed public support to Bach and bent over backwards to accommodate him.
But he painted himself into a corner. The approved IGA puts him on the PPRDA board but doesn’t allow him to designate a fill-in for meetings. Including the mayor, Colorado Springs will have six on the 11-member board, but all must be elected officials who owe their loyalty to constituents.
After the IGA was approved, Bach could have supported the measure, remained neutral or opposed it. He chose the latter, couching his opposition in terms so virulent that Douglas Bruce might have been at the podium.
“This is a new regional bureaucracy with a new tax,” Bach said. “This is not in the best interest of the citizens of Colorado Springs. I cannot and will not support it. We will lose the ability to deal with our own stormwater issues, and lock our citizens into a 20-year commitment. You can call it what you want, but it’s increasing taxes — call it what it is.”
At his media event Wednesday, Bach characterized City Council as “part-timers” who don’t “represent the interests of the city.” He characterized himself as the person who prevented Council from “giving away” Memorial Health System.
“I was the last person standing to save our hospital,” he said forcefully.
Bach pointed to PPRTA, claiming city residents are providing 89 percent of its revenue but getting only 73 percent of the spending for projects.
“That’s $10 million a year, folks!” he said.
He also criticized the county for charging PPRDA $600,000 annually to collect drainage fees, saying the money would go to pay county employees.
“Why?” he asked. “The county has to send out tax statements anyway — why would adding one line cost $600,000?”
Coldly furious in the audience, Lathen rebutted Mayor Bach’s assertions.
“This is an example of his ignorance of the process,” she said in exasperation. “At best, it’s ignorance. At the worst, it’s deliberately misleading the public. He has rejected anything the task force has done. [Citizens want] stormwater funding to be dedicated and regional. It’s nonsense to silo this thing. Stormwater doesn’t care about political boundaries.”
Councilmember Joel Miller tried to engage Bach in dialogue, but the mayor cut him off.
“This is the mayor’s media conference,” Bach said curtly. “You can hold your own press conference.”
By going all-out in opposing the PPRDA, Bach is betting his political life on the November outcome. But he might have created a lose-lose situation.
If the ballot issue passes, he’s finished. If it fails, he’ll be blamed by many who once were his supporters.
As the croupier says in Monte Carlo: “Messieurs et Mesdames, faites vos jeux. Rien ne va plus.”
The bets are down, and the voters will decide the outcome.