Nature Center fate hangs on vote
County also mulling Bear Creek Park sale
An El Paso County budget crisis was coming to a head this week, with a shutdown of the Bear Creek Nature Center among $8.8 million in possible cuts.
The county Board of Commissioners is scheduled to vote on the issue at its meeting Monday, June 2. The session will begin at 9 a.m. in the third floor hearing room, 27 East Vermijo Ave.
Even if the center survives these mid-year cutbacks - a citizen advisory committee has recommended the County Parks Department remain untouched through this budget year - there is no guarantee for the future, with county officials claiming that ongoing income from taxes and fees is being outstripped by increasing costs to provide basic services.
A less immediate budget-minded proposal is to sell county park land, including 575-acre Bear Creek Park in its entirety. As much as $14 million could be obtained from Bear Creek alone, according to a report from County Financial Services Director Nicola Sapp.
County Commissioner Sallie Clark, a Westside resident, said at a May 28 meeting of the Skyway Association she opposes this idea, but if it became absolutely necessary she is sure the board majority would not allow it to go to a land developer.
Jennifer George, a Top of Skyway resident, charged the commissioners with being “extremely short-sighted” in considering the park sale at all. “You are stewards of the land,” she said. “This is a breach of public trust.”
Skyway board member Margaret Brettschneider described the park-sale idea as "suicidal… If you sell the parks, you'll never get them back."
Other questions came in as to why the commissioners have not been more budget-proactive, considering that, as Clark explained (in summarizing $25 million in cuts over the past four years), they have seen the problem steadily worsening.
She responded that commissioners have resisted proposing a tax increase “because of the tenor in the community about not wanting more taxes.” Putting a mill levy hike on the ballot was actually considered during last year's cuts, but “we didn't think there was time” to sell the electorate on the idea, she said.
Also, she said, studies have indicated that the public prefers sales taxes (if tax increases must occur) because these are partially paid by visitors to the area.
A vote to raise the mill levy would require an override of the taxpayers bill of rights (TABOR) law that limits tax increases. For the past three years (until he became a state legislator in January), Douglas Bruce, the author of the law, had been a county commissioner. Asked if she thought the commissioners as a whole had been intimidated from an override by having Bruce in their midst, she replied, “Absolutely,” but added that she herself was not.
El Paso County reportedly has the lowest county property tax rate in the state. Clark said that because of TABOR's “ratchet-down” effect the rate has been roughly halved over the past 10 years. But getting the rate back to where the county would like it to be would require an increase so great that “it would be repellent to most people,” she said. She called for “gradual, long-term” measures.
One remedy, being informally touted by a consortium of local private organizations, is a new sales tax, probably one cent, that would raise $70 million a year to bolster the county's public health and safety departments. If approved by voters in November, the tax could help the county by reducing its funding needs in those areas, Clark said.
In the meantime, the county plans to develop two budgets for 2009, one assuming the tax, the other not, she said.
The Sapp recommendations call for cuts in every county department, including nearly $1 million from the Sheriff's budget - part of that resulting from laying off 14 deputies.
Numerous area residents have spoken out at meetings by commissioners or the citizen budget oversight committee over the past week and a half. Many of the appeals have been to save the parks. Dan Cleveland, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition, was among those individuals, but said he understands the commissioners' predicament. “It's like splitting a baby,” he said. “Nothing good can come of it.”
Clark said she is still deciding how she'll vote June 2. But she did indicate that public safety has to be given higher priority than parks.
The staff recommendation would stop funding the Parks Department ($560,000 for half a year), leaving it to get by with grants and other sources.
This would make continued operations of the Bear Creek and Fountain Creek nature centers “almost impossible,” Clark said. However, she offered a ray of hope, saying private talks have been initiated with local non-profit groups that might be willing to take over the centers.
Shirley Gipson, president of the nature centers' volunteer docent organization, said that a quarter of a million people a year visit those two locations, including 50,000 schoolchildren who “learn responsibility for the environment.”
Westside Pioneer article