COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Colorado Springs residents apparently will be paying more for stormwater projects after a 6-3 vote Tuesday by the City Council.
The council amended an existing ordinance to reinstate a fee that, because of unpopularity, was rescinded by a previous council in 2009.
However, it's unclear when the fee will take effect because the council has yet to decide whether to let residents vote on the issue.
"Since it's a fee and not a tax, we're not required to have voter approval," said Richard Skorman, the council's president. "But the people voted twice before on the last fee, so we'd like to have them do it again if we can."
When asked if the council will proceed with the fee if voters reject it, Skorman said he didn't know.
"That's a good question," he said. "We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it."
Some council members hopes to have a question on the ballot for voters in November, but that possibility appeared uncertain after Tuesday's meeting.
Don Knight, Bill Murray and Andy Pico voted against the fee.
In other business, the council heard from several members of the local medical marijuana industry who are pushing for the city to allow recreational marijuana sales.
"We're losing out on at least $20 million annually in potential tax revenue," said Michael Elliott, of Citizens for Safer Neighborhoods. "It's going to criminal organizations now because many people would rather go to the black market than to Manitou Springs, where it's more expensive, or to the Denver area. We'd rather keep that money here and give it to the city."
City officials have adamantly refused to allow recreational pot sales, and one speaker agrees with that decision.
"It's unbelievable that people think marijuana is going to solve all of our problems," said Gerald Miller, the speaker, said.
Skorman said the council is considering whether to allow residents to vote on the matter.
"We're taking our time to gather information, hear both sides and make the right decision," he said.
At the council's Monday afternoon work session, Mayor John Suthers presented his proposal to place the stormwater issue on the November ballot and allow voters to decide.
Frear Simons, a city resident, said she'll vote for the fee if she has the opportunity, and hopes others will too.
"I was very angry eight years ago that they got rid of it," she said. "I thought it was delaying the inevitable and making things worse."
Joe Koscove, a business owner, has mixed feelings.
"It's tough for me to always give more fees and taxes," he said. "Especially with a tight economy for most of us. So it's hard to justify that. But if it's going to a good source and is something tangible that we can see -- like the 2C paving project -- it sounds better."
The council discussed the matter for two hours Monday.
Under the proposed ballot language, the fee would start July 1, with residential property owners paying a monthly fee of $5 per dwelling unit and nonresidential property owners paying a monthly fee of $30 per acre.
The fee would generate $17 million annually for stormwater needs, so that the city wouldn't have to use budget money and could devote that money for other purposes.
The council -- with member Tom Strand absent -- appeared evenly divided on the matter, with four favoring the proposal and four opposing it.
Supporters said they agree with Suthers that the city can no longer put off its responsibility to address stormwater needs.
"I'm worried about a flat rate hurting low-income families the most," Councilwoman Yolanda Avila said. "But we have to set the vision and make it happen, along with input from our citizens. I was caught in a flash flood once, so I know this a serious issue."
Opponents, however, said the proposal is being rushed without a full consideration and discussion of every aspect.
"I can't support this," Knight said. "As it stands now, I don't think it has a good chance of passing."
Knight said he'd like the council to delay a public vote until next spring, and if it passes then, change the start date to Jan. 1, 2019.
The city would collect the nonresidential fee and Colorado Springs Utilities would collect the residential fee.
Suthers also proposed that voters amend the city's current stormwater ordinance to allow for an enterprise that will appoint a seven-member advisory committee, to provide input into stormwater projects.
The committee members must live in the city, own property in the city or have training in water resources planning.
There are two major differences in this fee plan: The amount of impervious surface a property has, meaning the amount that needs a drainage system rather than just soaking into the ground, is not a major factor; and the fee is based on a flat rate that is considered fairer.
The council rescinded the fee in 2009 after strong public opposition led by former elected leader and tax opponent Douglas Bruce.
Bruce didn't attend Monday's work session, but told KRDO NewsChannel 13 via phone that he's against the new fee version.
"I'll repeat what I said before," he said. "It's not a fee. It's a tax; a rain tax."
The city recently reached a long-term agreement with Pueblo County on stormwater projects but the county joined a federal lawsuit against the city for past stormwater shortcomings.
Suthers said Colorado Springs is the only major city in the country that doesn't have a dedicated stormwater fee, and a recent poll indicates a majority of residents approve of a fee.
"We're waiting for the results of another poll later this week that should tell us more," he said.