2010 ballot eyed for plan to create new countywide parks governing authority

       The details are still being finalized and considerable work lies ahead, but plans are afoot by the Trails and Open Space Coalition to set up a new government entity aimed at the restoration of many of the park amenities and services that the city and county have lost through deep budget cuts over the last couple of years.

Trails and Open Space Coalition Director Susan Davies is flanked by assistant leaders Bill Koerner (left) and Vince Cloward.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Pending citizen feedback, the scope could also take in activities that have been under the city's “Cultural Services” wing, including its community centers and the Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site (which face the potential of permanent closures April 1); as well as the county's Bear Creek Nature Center (which cut back hours and programs in 2009 despite relying on increased monetary donations and volunteerism from its docent organization).
       In an interview this week, Coalition Director Susan Davies cited a “groundswell of support” for what's being called the Sustainable Parks Initiative. Informal meetings on the Initiative - starting last spring when Dan Cleveland was still Coalition director (he retired in May) - have attracted “a really diverse group” of volunteers, Davies said.
       The e-mail list is 40 to 50 strong now “and growing,” she continued. “People don't want their parks to go brown and die.”
       Helping out financially has been a private conservation grant to the Coalition from Kathy Loo and the Loo Foundation. Added Bill Koerner, a long-time outdoors advocate who joined the Coalition staff last summer and has been closely involved with the Initiative, “we're hoping other funders are out there.”
       Time is tight. March 1 is the deadline to file a formal petition to get on the county ballot for the November 2010 election. Otherwise, the next opportunity won't be for another two years, and with the limited maintenance foreseen by the city “the parks won't make it to 2012,” Davies predicted.
       The law requires supporters to gather 8,714 petition signatures or have resolutions adopted by five of the county's nine municipalities (the Coalition expects to do both, Davies said). In addition, the chosen government form - the rarely used “regional service authority” (RSA) - is nearly 40 years old and will need to be revised in some ways by the Colorado Legislature (House District 18 Rep. Michael Merrifield has agreed to sponsor the bill).
       It is not yet known how much people would be asked to pay in taxes to the authority. One of the reasons for revising the RSA's language is to allow the option of charging both a sales tax and a property tax (currently it's just property), to avoid too big a hit with either type of tax.
       In any case, Davies and Koerner stressed that a key goal will be to keep costs down, including listening closely, as plans move forward, to what citizens indicate they can afford. “We're not going to be a Cadillac,” Davies pledged, to which Koerner added, good-humoredly, “More like a broken-down Chevy.”
       The RSA model was chosen largely because of its flexibility, allowing it to go across local government boundaries; issue revenue bonds; collect fees, gifts and grants; and establish subdistricts. A board of directors, independent of other area governments and proportionally representing its member entities, would be in charge.
       The county had a parks district until the early '70s, but then county government took over that service. Under modern conditions, bringing back a district would be almost impossible because of the bureaucratic complications, according to Davies and Koerner.
       They're well aware of anti-government voter sentiments, as shown by the emphatic loss of Question 2C (the city's proposed service-saving property tax hike) and the victory of 300 (which, among other things, ended the Stormwater Enterprise). “We're recognizing and even embracing the attitude out there,” Davies said.
       To appeal to voters, the Sustainable Parks Initiative intends to use as a model the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (RTA), which voters approved in 2004. In that ballot issue, desired projects were prioritized, funding percentages (e.g., for capital improvements, maintenance and administration) were stated up front, and the program itself was/is to “sunset” after 10 years.
       Assuming RSA approval at the polls, legal work would be needed to establish intergovernmental agreements (IGAs) between the authority and the county and the towns that would use it. Among the “more difficult” IGAs could be those with the county and Colorado Springs, each of which has its own parks department now, Davies said. However, both have been hit hard by budget cuts over the past few years, and she thinks their leaders could be amenable to working with an authority that could efficiently absorb parks, open space and trails responsibilities with an eye to avoiding duplication of efforts.
       The Trails and Open Space Coalition was formed in 1987 by local residents seeking to magnify their advocacy efforts. The non-profit moved its offices to the Westside about three years ago.

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