Sunday, February 24, 2013

On Ballot Issue #1

Colorado Springs Voters will have a decision to make on a proposed amendment to the TOPS Tax.  The proposal will permit up the 20% of the tax currently allocated to new park construction to be used for park maintenance.

First, a little history:  The TOPS Tax was enacted in 1997.  Under the original formula, up to 3% could be used for administration expenses.  A minimum of 60% must be used for acquisition of open space.  Up to 20% is used for acquisition construction and maintenance of trails.  And up to 20% is used for new park land acquisition and construction.  The original language specifically forbids the use of the TOPS tax for maintenance of existing parks; the intent of the new tax was to build new facilities, not maintain old ones.

In late 2010, the language was amended permitting up to 15% of the tax receipts to be spent on maintenance of existing trails, open space and parks.  This change was for a limited period of only two years and sunset on December 31, 2012.  The effect meant that in 2012, approximately $965,000 was available for parks maintenance from the TOPS tax.  The amendment was intentionally designed to sunset at the end of 2012 because the measure was viewed as a temporary fix.  The city council working with the mayor would have two years to come up with a more sustainable method of funding maintenance of this asset.  That did not happen.

So where do we go from here?  It is no secret that the city of Colorado springs has many fiscal problems:  constantly rising pension costs with potentially huge unfunded liabilities, decaying roads and bridges, demands for storm drainage capital improvements and maintenance costs, just to name a few.  Recent improvements in sales tax revenues have simply allowed the city to restore services that were cut back or eliminated following the start of the economic crises in 2008. 

Unfortunately, no one at city hall seems to be working on a comprehensive solution for park maintenance or any of the city’s financial problems.  We keep seeing stop gap measures, like the one on the ballot: tinker with the allocations in the TOPS tax; get utilities to pay for storm drainage.  (More on this topic in a future post).  I fully expect that we will see campaigns in the future to change the formula again and again, each time transferring more and more of the tax revenue away from new infrastructure and towards maintenance of existing parks trails and open space.  The first step in this process will likely be a rewriting of the parks master plan and park ordinances.  Be on the look-out for changes that reduce the park land, trails and open space requirements for new developments or existing developments.  It’s the first step to establishing the predicate:  we have enough parks, trails and open space.  We’ve reached the promised land for trails open space and parks and do not need any more; now let’s dedicate all of the TOPS Tax to maintenance.  It’s also an old way to define success:  If you cannot meet the standards, dumb down the standards.

If you live in a part of town with adequate parks, trails and open space, you may not care what happens across town in someone else’s back yard.  If not, you may never see a new park if this measure passes.

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