Rob Douglas: Stormy stormwater success
October 17, 2013
While property owners in Steamboat Springs dodged the initiation of a stormwater tax this week — thanks to the excellent work of a residents task force — City Manager Deb Hinsvark already has begun the groundwork for a recreation district tax that hasn't been publicly debated by the Steamboat Springs City Council.
Let's turn back the calendar.
A year ago, this column broke the news that the council could hit Steamboat property owners with a new "fee" — a tax that evades a vote of the people — to cover stormwater infrastructure improvements. Hinsvark disagreed with the column's theme that $10 million from the city's reserve fund shouldn't be used to build a new police station when those funds could be used for stormwater infrastructure upgrades. In an email to the council, Hinsvark stated:
"Well, I've read Rob's Friday sermon and feel you may be sidetracked by citizens asking you about it. … Regarding the stormwater needs. The city has never had a city-wide stormwater plan. We have NO idea of the infrastructure needs to complete an integrated plan. It could be $3 million; it could be $100 million. It's a totally new city requirement and should not be expected to be accommodated from our general fund revenues. Think of it like moving from a volunteer fire company to a professional, paid fire company. It's time the city did it — but there are no new revenues to accommodate it. And it's not a one-time thing — it will be an ongoing program. A stormwater fee is the 'norm' for communities throughout Colorado."
Both before and after a consultant's report suggested $40 million in stormwater system improvements, and while acknowledging, "This community may choose to look in a different direction," Hinsvark championed a stormwater fee, telling the Steamboat Pilot & Today:
"We will look at multiple funding options, but this fee is usually the most logical nexus. It's the way a majority of cities pay for these upgrades." — Nov. 10, 2012.
"It's kind of a big issue and a new issue that I can assure you we cannot address with the funding we currently have or get. We could spend every penny we have on it and still not address it." — Jan. 14, 2013.
Pushing back against a fee to pay for stormwater infrastructure and the notion that initial cost estimates by city staff and the consultant should be determinative, the Pilot & Today's editorial board opined:
"But just because a city can impose a fee doesn't mean it should, and we're not swayed in the least by the argument that many other municipalities, particularly along the Front Range, use an assessed fee system to pay for their own stormwater projects." — Nov. 20, 2012.
"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." — Jan. 19, 2013.
Those words were prescient. This week, the council approved the Stormwater Task Force's recommendation that funding for the stormwater program be accomplished "through current revenue streams and prioritization of the budget."
Asked whether she accepted the recommendation opposing a stormwater fee, Hinsvark said, "Any time we're searching for funds or new resources, it's difficult in an organization where resources are scarce, and we have to accept that we have other things to fund. But in this particular case, it is so imperative that we maintain the investment that we have and the infrastructure that we have, that we will find a way — and we have a plan — to fund this from our general fund."
But as mentioned above, Hinsvark already is pushing another tax. This time, she's knocking on doors trying to conjure up support for a recreation district tax.
Arguably, that's a debate the council should hold publicly before promises of recreation funding sugarplums are used to entice support.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.