County mulls putting park maintenance tax on ballot

       A meeting of the El Paso County Commissioners June 21 is shaping up as pivotal for a plan to raise money for area parks maintenance through a new sales tax.
       The nonprofit, Westside-based Trails and Open Space Coalition (TOSC) has asked the commissioners to approve putting what it calls the “Great Parks Initiative” on the election ballot in November. If they say no - and there's been some advance feedback to indicate that might happen - other government entities could put the measure on their individual ballots, but the smaller communities may find that too pricey, according to Susan Davies, TOSC's executive director.
       “It's frustrating,” she said, citing an extensive effort by her organization over the past year and a half to analyze local governments' parks-maintenance money shortfalls and to survey area residents on what, if any, tax they'd support to make up the difference.
       Davies said these surveys have shown a majority of the public would support a parks-maintenance sales tax as high as .25 of a cent (with a sunset year of 2025), but to “err on the side of caution,” TOSC is advocating .15 of a cent.
       That would still not raise either the Colorado Springs or county parks departments back to their former budget levels. In Colorado Springs, the .15-cent sales tax would generate an additional $7.3 million a year, TOSC's analysis estimates. Adding this to $9.3 million (the current year's budget) puts the total at $16.6 million. The city's number in 2008 was $19.8 million.
       El Paso County also has more than halved its budget for parks in recent years - from a one-time high of $2.4 million to $600,000 in 2009. The .15-cent tax is expected to add nearly $1.3 million, for a County Parks total of about $1.9 million.
       Sallie Clark, a Westside resident and a county commissioner, is out of town, but responded in an e-mail that she had no certainty as to how the commissioners would vote (if at all) May 21, but they will be “open-minded” when the issue comes before them. “From my perspective,” she said, “ I've always been very supportive of parks, but I do believe that the larger discussion surrounds the immediate need and the other necessary priorities in our community, among those transportation and public safety.”
       As for putting it on the ballot, Clark said she could not predict how that might go, either.
       When Davies addresses the group, she said, “I will ask the question, 'Isn't that the essence of TABOR [the state tax-limitation law], that people can decide if they want to raise taxes or not?'”
       Davies said that TOSC staff members have begun making presentations to area communities, asking their elected councils to at least vote in favor of the commissioners putting the matter on the ballot. Of the three to hear presentations so far, Fountain's council has voted for that concept, while Monument's and Calhan's have verbally agreed to it, she said. However, none of those three has taken the next step - to express approval of the tax itself.
       Colorado Springs City Council has not yet heard a presentation, but “our goal is to hit everyone,” Davies said. When the matter does come before that body, based on her understanding of individual council members, she thinks a majority would be OK with TOSC's at-least-put-it-on-the-ballot request. However, she can't say what part might be played by new Mayor Steve Bach, who has veto power. He has stated publicly that he's opposed to new taxes but “believes parks are important,” she said.
       A problem with the TOSC proposal from a public relations standpoint, Davies believes, is that parks maintenance “isn't sexy.” Still, she said, people should like the assurances implicit in the Great Parks Initative - that with the tax in place, future tight budgets for local governments won't mean a repeat of recent-year scenarios in which governments saved money by cutting park budgets (including such maintenance items as infrastructure repairs, weeding, mowing, watering, grafitti removal and trash removal).

Westside Pioneer article