Letters on 2C

Excerpt from an email from Kent Obee to City Council

Back in early August when the TOPS renewal/increase was coming before Council, I sent you and several of your colleagues a simple analysis of the proposed new measure in comparison with the current TOPS allocations.  There were four winners and one loser.  "Admin" increases over threefold, "Maintenance" is up by over eight times, "Parks" triples, and "Trails" more than doubles.  Only "Open Space" is cut -- by a quarter, despite the doubling of the tax.  This was a pretty bitter pill for those of us of us who have seen TOPS as first and foremost an open space acquisition program.  The pill was made even more bitter when Council rejected any built-in protections for open space land acquisition money the the ballot language -- including one recommended in an 8 to 1 vote by the Parks Board.  Because of this outcome, I know several people (all strong open space supporters) who will be voting against the TOPS measure in November.  Their argument is (1) the present TOPS does more for open space than does the new one and (2) we have time to go back to the drawing board and get it right for either November of 2022 or April of 2023.

Life without Open Space by Donna Strom

Stop for just a moment to consider Colorado Springs without Red Rock Canyon Open Space. Without Ute Valley. Without Blodgett. Without Stratton Open Space or Bluestem.

Cyclists ... consider The Chutes either gone completely or terminating abruptly in a maze of streets, high rise apartments and traffic lights. For that is what would have been built in much of what is now Stratton Open Space.

 

This would be the case today had funding for open space not been put in place via TOPS in 1997. Now, fast forward 20 years from today, into the Colorado Springs of the future. The entire eastern border of Colorado Springs, and no doubt to the north and south as well, is completely built out and the TOPS Extension ballot question of 2021 has passed. The majority of open space acres are to be found on the westside of Colorado Springs. Those unfortunate families who move into our town in the 2040's will find themselves stranded in a sea of houses, with what parks they do have - diminished, or not there at all - thanks to the PLDO reduction of dedicated park acreage and Parks' ability to accept payment in lieu of land. And in order to maintain ALL of our parks using what once were dedicated TOPS dollars, the TOPS treasure chest (completely unsecured in the new ordinance), and singled out for a cut of twenty-five percent, will slowly and inevitably drain away into nothingness. Even if you see no difference between a park and an open space, this is still a very dismal picture. It puts us so far behind the rest of the Front Range cities - in terms of open space acreage - that there will be little hope of ever catching up. And, if you are among those who place a premium on the more natural and undisturbed character of open space, how then do you justify denying the people of the future ready access to open space for themselves and their families exactly the same as we ourselves now enjoy? 

 

The acres of open space out east will certainly look different than those in the foothills. But that is immaterial to the concept. Municipalities in other states fervently protect their open space and have active programs of open space acquisition ... many of them without a mountain or a foothill in sight. Colorado Springs will be doubly blessed to have both mountains and prairie within our borders as the city grows. And we will be willfully cheating the new residents of Colorado Springs if we do not afford them guaranteed funding for open space close to the places where they live, work and recreate. Nature comes in a multitude of forms. It is vital that we protect, preserve and acquire open space for everyone who comes to live in our city, and not just those who are lucky enough to live near an open space today. Exactly how selfish do you want to be? Please understand that if this measure passes, we will lose new open space, increasingly more (as the fund is redirected to other purposes) over each of the twenty years during which this policy will be locked in place. Add that to the two acres of dedicated parkland (per 1,000 people) already permanently lost owing to the PLDO reduction passed last summer. That's a net loss of many hundreds to thousands of acres of public lands we will have given up. A vote for this measure is a vote for - not giving away - but for never acquiring countless acres of future public lands. There were seventeen viable alternate funding sources on the table to help with the shortfall in parks' maintenance. Why, as November looms, are we now faced with only one choice? And that choice, the worst of all.

A Letter From Kent Obee to the Parks Advisory Board

Dear Members of the TOPS Working Committee and Parks Advisory Board --

 

I am writing to you today about your chance -- probably for the last time -- to weigh in on a proposed ballot measure to both extend the life of the current TOPS program and to double its level of funding.  While on the face of it, both extension of TOPS and increased funding would seem to be no-brainers, there are several important issues which I believe require further examination. 

 

But first -- and by way of introduction for those of us who don't know each other (and many of us do know each other) -- let me start with a few words of personal history.  I have been involved in parks and open space issues here in Colorado Springs for nearly 25 years -- starting with the effort to save the then Stratton land as the first TOPS open space purchase.  This led to two terms each on the TOPS Working Committee and Parks Board -- experiences I found both enjoyable and rewarding -- as I hope you do.  I have also done stints on the boards of the Garden of the Gods Foundation and Trails and Open Space Coalition.  More recently I played leadership roles in the fight against the City/Broadmoor "Strawberry Fields" land exchange and the subsequent "Protect our Parks" (POPS) ballot initiative to require voter approval for any such exchanges in the future.  As I am sure you know, we lost on the first and won on the second.

 

I am a strong believer in and supporter of the TOPS program.  Very simply. I think it is the best thing Colorado Springs has done for itself in the last half century.  Compared to other Front Range communities, we started late and still lag far behind most of our neighbors to the north in total acres of open space land preserved.  That said, we have had some spectacular success stories thanks to TOPS.  I would not, for example, trade the Red Rock Canyon Open Space for the entire City for Champions extravaganza. 

 

Thus, at this point, it would seem to make sense to extend and even increase funding for TOPS.  Unfortunately, I believe there are some major flaws in the ballot language now before you -- ballot language now presumably in its final form.  I also believe there were serious flaws in the process which produced this language.  The process started with a "commission" of "stakeholders" convened by then City Council President Richard Skorman.  This was a great idea.  The group of about two dozen community leaders and park and open space advocates met virtually five times and were beginning to focus on some specific ballot language when the process was ended.  I know there were several members of what might be called the "advocates" side who felt they group really needed to have at least one more meeting to try to reach  consensus on what language to put forward.  This didn't happen.  I will attach with this email draft language done by former TOPS WC Chair Bill Koerner that was favored by a number of the advocates.  Instead, what is now before you is language drafted entirely by city parks and legal staff.

 

So, what is the problem?  My biggest issue -- one I know others share -- is that the language is totally open-ended.  TOPS money could be spent for almost anything the parks department does.  What is before you now is essentially a measure to make up the post-2008 "Great Recession" deficit in the parks budget riding on the good name and reputation of TOPS.  Is this a bad thing?  Probably not -- but it isn't TOPS as we have known it.  TOPS was first and foremost envisioned as an open space acquisition program -- together with smaller funding components for the development of new trails and parks.  Yes, 2% was taken off the top for "admin" and ordinance's language does include "stewardship" in the 60% allotment for open space.  However, at that time the acquisition money was seen as so sacrosanct that in a 2003 tweak of the ordinance it was deemed necessary to provide a separate 6% off the top for the maintenance of TOPS properties.  In 2013 another tweak opened the 20% parks category to use for maintenance anywhere in the system.  Since then more permissive readings of the ordinance have allowed more and more open space funds to go to a wide variety of "stewardship" activities. 

 

Given this history, I believe the language should include safeguards for at least some level of open space acquisition funding.  The proposed Bill Koerner language I attached would put this at 80% of the 30% open space account -- which, of course, is only 21% of the whole.  Other proposals are out there that would lower this safeguard to 70%, or to even as low as 50% -- but, and bottom line, at least some level of open space acquisition money must be protected.  It is argued by some proponents of the language before you that there isn't really all that much more open space to buy.  Possibly true, but do we really know?  We have the Jacobs study to document our park needs, but no concomitant study has been done for open space needs -- particularly as our city expands farther to the north, east and southeast.

 

I must say I find the 5% off the top for "admin" to be excessive -- a cool $1 million and more than three times what is provided currently.  Really?

 

I hope you will consider these issues.  I will leave you with one more thought/question.  Do we really have to do this now?  The current TOPS mandate runs until 2025.  This November's election is an odd-year election which historically produces a low turnout.  Would November 2022 or even -- and possibly better still -- our municipal election in April of 2023 be better?  Between now and then there is no change in mayor or council membership -- so the local political dynamic shouldn't change.  Would it be worth waiting and doing a more detailed look at future open space needs and options and getting it right?

 

Thank you for taking the time to read and consider the points raised above.  If you have further questions, I can be reached by phone or email at the number/address given here.

 

With best wishes --

 

Kent Obee