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Council moves to tap reserves for water in parks
For years, the city of Colorado Springs has asked for a cheaper water rate for municipal parks.
For years, city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities has said no.
On Monday, the thorny issue resurfaced when officials from Mayor Steve Bach’s office told the City Council they were looking at Utilities to plug a $545,000 hole for parks watering in the 2013 budget. The nine-member council doubles as the Utilities Board and oversees the $1 billion, four-service utility.
“I think there’s a strong assumption, at least by the executive branch and maybe some others, that there should be a municipal rate as it relates to parks,” Chief of Staff Laura Neumann told council members.
The idea was floated even before Bach was mayor. It came up a few years ago when the city cut parks watering to balance the budget. Utilities, which offered the city a water conservation rate pilot program that has saved more than $1 million, says a discounted water rate would mean that ratepayers would absorb the costs.
“At the end of the day, we’re talking about other people’s money,” Utilities CEO Jerry Forte told the council. “We’re talking about ratepayer dollars, and if we were to find opportunities to reduce costs, that money belongs to ratepayers first.”
After a long debate Monday, a council majority decided to tap the city’s reserve to balance the budget and to direct Utilities to work with the city on a water rate solution before irrigating kicks into high gear.
The city’s proposed budget is up for first reading Tuesday, and the council’s decision to dip into reserves is likely to trigger a mayoral veto.
“I believe I can say confidently that (Bach) does not believe we should dip into the general fund reserves and so if that is the direction of council, I believe he will veto that,” Neumann said.
The council can override a mayoral veto with six votes.
Council President Scott Hente said the Bach administration’s assumption that Utilities would cover the $545,000 gap was unreasonable.
“In making that assumption, you’ve put us between the proverbial rock and a hard place,” Hente said. “If — and this is a big if — if we were to accept that, now all of a sudden we have a $545,000 problem on the Utilities side of the equation.”
Council President Pro Tem Jan Martin said the city was asking for a “special subsidy” for parks.
“This is why it smacks of stormwater,” she said, referring to the now-defunct Stormwater Enterprise, which levied a fee on property owners.
“We decided to go ahead and do the stormwater fee without going to the voters. This is basically the same thing. We’re asking Utilities to pay a subsidy to the city to water parks without going to the voters. I can see a parallel path,” she said.
But council members Angela Dougan and Tim Leigh said the $545,000 could be ferreted out of Utilities’ budget.
“I think we can sharpen our pencils, roll up our sleeves, decide this is something we want to do, and it can be done in a matter of hours,” Dougan said.
Leigh said the debate about discounted water rates for parks highlights the “inherent conflict of interest” with council members also serving as members of the Utilities Board.
“I think the real important point is we could resolve this as City Council. We can override Utilities Board. They are subservient to us, so we could resolve this very quickly if we chose to,” Leigh said.
“But I do want to take the opportunity to point out that we are so conflicted ... one of the No. 1 things on our agenda needs to be governance. I’ll let it go at that, but this is a classic case of why that is the case,” he said.
Contact Daniel Chacón: 476-1623