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Colorado Springs City Council votes to dun Utilities ratepayers for watering parks

The Colorado Springs City Council on Tuesday approved a resolution to increase fee revenue flowing into Colorado Springs Utilities through a rate increase to pay for watering city parks. The resolution, approved previously by the Utilities Board, which is also the City Council, means water ratepayers will see average monthly increases between 34 cents and $14.77 starting January 1, 2019, depending on their billing category. The amount will double in 2020.

The cash surplus created by the rate increase can then be moved out of Utilities accounts and into the city’s general fund. The City Charter allows the Council to appropriate all surplus revenues Utilities generates to the general fund, where it can be used for any purpose the Council approves.

Colorado Springs City Hall

Council members all agree that city parks attract visitors and businesses and that healthy trees are both aesthetic and environmental benefits worth preserving. The question they face is where to get the money, not whether the parks should be watered.

Councilman Bill Murry proposed a motion to amend the resolution requiring that the city both match the funds from Utilities and be required to “maintain its current level of effort” to ensure that the money is actually used to water parks.

The Mayor’s Chief of Staff, Jeff Green said the administration is committed to allocating funds to watering parks that will be “restricted for budgeting going forward” and that the funds received from Utilities “will be restricted specifically for that purpose.”

Councilman Don Knight also wanted to make sure that any money not used for watering in wet years would not go back to the general fund but would be added to the new park watering fund.

The traditional method of paying for park maintenance and watering is a line item for parks in the budget. General services like this are usually funded by taxes paid by everyone, including visitors and tourists who, Councilwoman Jill Gaebler and President Skorman both said are attracted to the city in part by its parks.

An inability to budget adequate money for parks maintenance has plagued the city since the 2009 economic crisis, producing dead and dying trees and brown grass. Part of the problem, says Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department Director Karen Palus, is a series of droughts that restricted the city’s ability to divert water from other more important needs to watering parks. The system is only now beginning to recover from those impacts, and many trees were lost but are being replaced both by the city and by private donors.

General fund budget allocation decisions leave the Parks Department today short some $5 million as compared to 2008. Palus told the Council that the 2019 $3.3 million budget for park watering originally submitted was even then $1.2 million short of the need. The current amount in the city budget line item for parks watering for 2018 is zero, said Murray.

While all Council members agreed that the need is dire, there was disagreement about the proper way to pay for the water. Council President Skorman said that this plan will provide a stable, long-term funding source for parks watering.

Councilman Dave Geislinger said about 15 percent of the money flowing into Utilities coffers through this plan would come from water ratepayers who are non-residents of the city. This, both Geislinger and Skorman said, was appropriate because outsiders also use the city’s parks.

Geislinger was enthusiastic that non-residents would be contributing a significant portion of the fees. “It’s not going to cost the taxpayers,” said Geislinger, “In a way this is a way to have the city needs met by non-citizens supplementing the city. So, we are supporting but we’re are not funding it from the general fund.”

But at the end of the meeting, after the Council had adjourned, a city staffer told departing councilmembers off the record that it was 1 percent not 15 percent who were non-resident ratepayers. Complete Colorado asked Councilman Don Knight about the discrepancy Wednesday. After confirming with Colorado Springs Utilities, Knight told Complete Colorado that the figure is “less than one percent.”

Knight disagrees with the plan to boost water rates, saying that there is sufficient money in the general fund to cover the shortfall, or that part of the voter-approved stormwater fees could be dedicated to parks watering. Skorman said those fees are needed for other departments, citing things such as an aging police vehicle fleet and city infrastructure like bridges.

Amendments to the resolution incorporating commitments to reserve the money only for parks watering into the future were eventually hammered out and the resolution passed on a 6-3 vote with Councilmen Knight, Murray and Pico voting no.

Questions have been raised as to why the city cannot simply allocate the 24 acre-inches of water needed to keep grass and trees in parks healthy from its own water supply without having to pay for water that already belongs to the city.

Outgoing Utilities CEO Jerry Forte explained to Complete Colorado that there’s no free lunch for anyone when it comes to utilities. Even the city has to pay for electricity from its own power plants and water from its own sources.

This, he says, is a product of bond covenants that apply to the billions of dollars of bonds issued by the city to pay for things, including the Southern Delivery System water line.

Bonding companies required the city to agree to charging everyone for Utilities services, even city departments. The only exception is water used for firefighting, that’s free to the city.

Forte added that in a few years the city will no longer be bound by such covenants for future bond issues.

But the existing bonds won’t go away for 20 to 25 years, says Forte. This means that the city has to pay the going rate for its own water to keep the city’s trees and grass alive for the foreseeable future.

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