Our View: A drain on taxpayers
January 19, 2013
A city can pay for a lot of stuff with $40 million — including, according to a recently completed study performed for Steamboat Springs and combined with estimates from city officials, a new stormwater system.
That's a tough pill to swallow, especially for a city like Steamboat that has an annual operating budget of about $40 million. Fortunately, the past has proven that consultant studies and initial government estimates aren't always reflective of the scope of necessary work or the most competitive bid to do the job. It's for that reason that a to-be-formed stormwater task force should be expected to thoroughly vet the study, determine the extent and timing of needed stormwater improvements, examine a variety of funding options for the project and present those findings to residents and city officials for further inspection before any final decisions are made.
The only thing that is clear today is that Steamboat Springs doesn't have the money to pay for any capital project in excess of the $10 million or so it has in unrestricted reserves. Interim City Manager Deb Hinsvark has floated the concept of instituting a fee on residents to fund the stormwater system upgrade, an idea that amounts to a tax without the burden of giving the people it impacts any say in the matter.
The bigger challenge for the stormwater task force will be to accomplish what often should be done for major capital projects — explain and justify the importance of the work to residents, clearly identify the true and necessary costs as well as the length of the project, seek approval in the form of a tax question if regular revenues are unable to pay for it and make sure any resulting tax has a sunset so it only pays for what it was intended.
It's a shame the city hasn't better prepared itself during the past few decades for such a major infrastructure project. Perhaps there is some solace in knowing the estimated price tag of $40 million is likely far more than what truly is needed. After all, it was less than a year ago that city officials pitched the council on a new $19.5 million public safety campus to be paid for with a property tax. Council rejected that proposal, and the current estimated cost of a new fire station and police station has been cut nearly in half to about $10 million.
We're not sure just how much the stormwater infrastructure projects can be scrubbed — that will be the job of the task force. Last's weeks draft consultant report recommends the city invest $17 million in new capital projects to upgrade its stormwater system and help manage future flooding and problems associated with the annual spring runoff. But that total doesn't include the price of meeting any new federal stormwater requirements, the cost of land purchases needed to implement improvements to the system and the cost of restoring and maintaining the city's existing stormwater infrastructure.
City engineers expect those extra costs together could increase the total of future improvements by an additional $18 million to $23 million.
We've previously acknowledged that infrastructure projects like upgraded stormwater systems aren't sexy or compelling, but they often are necessary. The stormwater task force, which is to consist of city staff and engineers, homeowners impacted by flooding, developers and transportation officials, will have the onus of determining what is necessary, and at what cost to taxpayers. It's not an enviable job, but it's an important one — especially given the potential financial hit to taxpayers' wallets.