Councilman Sean Paige salvos in the debate about the Templeton Gap floodway.
By Seth Richardson
“It’s better to be the burr under the saddle than the horse,” said the late but notable Boulder political gadfly Ricky Weiser on the many occasions she was asked why she preferred to attend virtually every meeting of the Boulder City Council and Boulder County Commissioners for something like 40 years as a citizen, rather than seeking election to public office.
Sage advice I think for our much respected and revered local gadfly and columnist-cum-Councilman Sean Paige, who seems to be in something of a snit over my column criticizing the Council’s position on the T-Gap floodway levee improvements.
I think he’s taking the criticism too personally, but for better or for worse, Paige has volunteered to govern and having done so, he’s also volunteered to suffer the saddle-galls that are part of the job.
Unlike most elected officials however, Paige has his own virtual printing press, Local Liberty Online, a sterling source for information on the outrages and abuses of government. Which makes his salvo at The Broadside somewhat puzzling, but an excellent excuse to further the debate.
To be fair, Paige is not responsible for the Stormwater Enterprise situation, it had its genesis long before he joined the council, and he’s been handed the short end of the stick by the voters. But it seems from his column that he’d rather blame Douglas Bruce for the woes of the Council than accept the fact that Douglas Bruce didn’t enact anything, the voters of Colorado Springs did.
In his Page by Paige column at Local Liberty Online, he takes me to task for my suggestion that a simple solution to the T-Gap floodway issue is to propose a Special Improvement District. He says,
“Why floodway residents would listen to what we “incompetents” on Council have to say about the need for a special district is a mystery. These folks voted in the majority to end the stormwater enterprise, and free themselves from the “rain tax,” only weeks ago. That they would turn around and support a mill-levy increase next year (a new “rain tax”), on advice from their allegedly-inept City Council, is doubtful. But maybe Seth can take on the task of selling the concept, in between blog posts. Why it’s Council’s job to promote the virtues of the district is unclear, since a majority on Council (including me) opposed Issue 300, anticipating that it would have nasty consequences. I’m not going to spend next year cleaning-up after Doug Bruce. I have my hands full now, trying to comply with his incomprehensible ballot language.”
First, let me say that my criticism of the Council is not directed at any particular individual, and certainly not at Paige, but rather at the institutionalized arrogance and corruption that’s been in place for some years now that led to the creation of the Stormwater Enterprise in the first place.
I was not in this neck of the woods when that happened, but I’ve seen it before and I recognize the symptoms of government corruption and arrogance when I see them, having come from Boulder County, where one perforce lives under the oppressive and disdainful arrogance of government bureaucrats and elected officials on a daily basis. It’s why I left and I don’t want to see it institutionalized here. And I’m gratified that someone like Douglas Bruce is willing to beard the lion in its den and work to shut such charades down. I’m also gratified that the citizens of Colorado Springs are not the deluded, dependency culture Liberals and Progressives that infest Boulder County like pine beetles ravaging the forest.
Coming from that environment, it was easy to see that the Stormwater Enterprise was set up as a way to weasel around the limitations of TABOR and give the Council the ability to raise funds without a vote of the people. The whole Stormwater Enterprise scheme was specifically concocted to end-run TABOR by redefining infrastructure improvements and maintenance that have customarily and historically been paid for by taxes as “services” paid for by mandatory fees instead, thus freeing the city from having to ask permission to soak the taxpayers for more money. This is not true of every city enterprise, but it’s certainly true of the Stormwater Enterprise, and the People decided that this charade could not be allowed to continue, so the People (not Doug Bruce) revoked that authority. That leaves Paige and his fellow Councilpersons with a conundrum and a mess to clean up, but that’s what they get paid the not-so-big bucks to do, and nobody’s chained them to the dais.
This is not to say that the money and infrastructure improvements for stormwater flow are not necessary, they certainly are in some cases, or that they not reasonable, because certainly the T-Gap project is completely reasonable. Moreover, with some $15 million in cash in the enterprise’s coffers, which will perforce revert to the city when the enterprise itself is dismantled, there will be at least some money available in the immediate future to continue necessary projects. Council will have to find a new funding source, of course, which will depend on the trust of the community to approve new taxes to fund the work.
The problem is one of credibility and accountability on the part of the Council. Their predecessors tried to concoct a scheme to frustrate TABOR, and the people of Colorado Springs called shenanigans on them and shut them down. That’s their sovereign right.
It’s certainly not fair to blame Paige for the problem, or for the fact that Issue 300 destroyed the Stormwater Enterprise much more suddenly than is prudent. In this I agree with him. Even I clearly understand that there are legitimate needs when it comes to stormwater improvements. But that’s how things stand, and griping about it profits no one.
But my criticism of the council stands as it regards the Templeton Gap Floodway project specifically, which is what I was writing about, not all of the rest of the now-defunct Stormwater Enterprise projects, which, as I have written previously, will need to be dealt with one way or another.
Now let me address some of the questions Sean raises in his column. To begin with, in my view, the best reason why the floodway residents would listen to a proposal for a special improvement district is because, as I pointed out, it’s going to cost residents, by the City’s own estimates, some $3,000,000 per year, every year, from now until their mortgages are paid off, to buy federal flood insurance if they don’t. On the other hand, if they do listen and approve the new mill levy, they pay much less overall, and they only have to pay for the improvements once.
Did I live in the area, I’d certainly vote for a ballot issue that promises to save me having to pay hundreds of dollars every year into the foreseeable future in exchange for paying a small mill levy over a fixed period to fix the levee. Any sensible person can analyze the costs and come up with a perfectly rational conclusion that ends in a voluntary mill-levy increase for the residents of the flood hazard area.
And to refute one of his other arguments, while he is correct that some stormwater projects must justifiably be paid for by all taxpayers, so a plan has to be worked out to pass a ballot issue to fund them, in the case of the T-Gap levee it’s only the residents of the high hazard flood areas that are affected by the FEMA flood insurance requirement, so it’s perfectly reasonable to cut this project out of the herd and fund it separately using a special improvement district. And it’s appropriate that it be done immediately because unlike a speculative 1 percent risk of a “100 year flood” in any given year that many projects are built to protect against, the residents in the area of the T-Gap levee have a 100 percent chance of being required to buy flood insurance if their mortgage is backed by the federal government, and when FEMA will drop the hammer on them is just a matter of time.
As for why the city should take on the task of convincing residents its in their best interests to do so, well, not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s the Council’s job. I’m afraid that cleaning up after what a majority of the voting citizens of the city (not Doug Bruce) voted to do is exactly what the Council is obligated to do, whether they like it or not.
Plan A didn’t work out. That doesn’t mean that the Council can simply give up and walk away from the problems. It means that they must come up with Plan B, and try harder to convince the taxpayers that the problem is real and the need for more tax money is legitimate.
And for goodness sake, it’s time to start being open, honest and forthright about it, because Council credibility is on a par with that of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall at the moment.
Paige concludes by writing:
“Unlike Richardson, I have a responsibility to consider this bigger picture when taking a position on the stormwater issue. It isn’t just a theoretical blogging exercise for me anymore. No one was as angry about the way the stormwater enterprise was created than I was. But that doesn’t justify shutting it down in a sloppy, wasteful, short-sighted way.”
Maybe not, Sean, but that’s what happened, and now it’s time to work the problem, which is all I’m suggesting. You want a “holistic” solution to the various other stormwater and drainage problems, fine, work one out. I’ll be happy to offer suggestions. Just don’t try to evade TABOR with the new plan. Suck it up and ask permission, like Council was supposed to have done in the first place.
But there’s still no reason that the Templeton Gap levee can’t be fixed by getting the people who will be directly impacted economically to approve a mill-levy increase starting right now! Why wait? What’s the deadline for certifying the levee? Won’t working towards a Special Improvement District keep the feds happy for a while, as funding is being sought? Be creative and positive rather than dog-in-the-manger and negative.
What the taxpayers ordered the Council to dismantle was the Stormwater Enterprise and its autonomous authority to levy “fees,” they did not order the Council to abandon all necessary stormwater infrastructure projects.
Nor did they demand or require that payments already made to the enterprise be refunded.
Mr. Bruce seems to believe that the shut-down of the Stormwater Enterprise requires that the assets be sold and fees collected be refunded, but that requirement appears nowhere in the ordinance or the ballot issue.
Everything the Stormwater Enterprise acquired, purchased or collected in fees prior to the new ordinance was acquired lawfully and in accordance with the laws governing municipal enterprises, that much the courts have confirmed. It can’t collect any more fees, nor can it do “free” work on city-owned property, nor can it give “gifts” or payments to the city. But it can simply disappear, leaving the city in possession of the assets, which can be redirected to a new city “Stormwater Division” that will carry on the necessary work, but with a taxpayer-approved funding mechanism in place of the fee-collection system.
All the People actually did in dissolving the Stormwater Enterprise was to revoke the autonomous fee-collection authority of the Enterprise itself and thereby implicitly require that the Council ask for the taxpayer’s permission to levy new taxes to pay for stormwater improvements. They didn’t say that they wouldn’t be willing to pay for the needed projects, or that they wanted refunds.
The People, I think, are not opposed to paying the necessary taxes to keep the city operating properly, they are just opposed to shenanigans, fear-mongering, lies and being treated like they are children by the people they elect to serve them.
© 2009 Altnews