Colorado Springs residents could decide to retain up to $20 million in November to create a fund to mitigate wildfire risk inside and outside the town's boundaries.
A "yes" vote on question 2D would allow the city to keep the money, extra tax revenue that exceeds a cap on put in place by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Leaders say they will invest it in wildfire mitigation work on an ongoing basis.
If the measure passes, it would also increase the cap on the amount of money the city could keep in 2022 under TABOR and free up $10.5 million, mostly for public safety investments such as new fire and police stations.
The fire department could only spend the interest and up to 5% of the principal in any one year, according to the question.
A "no" vote on the question could prompt the city to refund the money on residents' utility bills or the City Council could ask to retain it again in a future election.
The Colorado Springs Fire Department coordinates wildfire mitigation and is almost solely reliant on grants for that work, Fire Marshal Brett Lacey said. The new fund could help the department plan more efficiently and provide a steady source of matching dollars to apply for more grant funding, he said.
An opponent of the measure, Laura Carno, executive director of Springs Taxpayers, said the city should prioritize wildfire mitigation spending within its existing budget, instead of spending money on items the general public would not approve of if they were placed on a ballot. She noted the city spent several hundred thousand dollars this year on remodeling council chambers, and expects to spend $2.5 million on the city auditorium as part of a larger plan to give it to a nonprofit, as well as millions more in COVID-19 federal stimulus money on irrigation systems for city golf courses.
"They spend money on the stuff we would never say 'yes' to," she said.
As a resident who was evacuated from the Black Forest fire, she said she understands the importance of fire mitigation, but it should not require retaining tax revenues.
Councilman Richard Skorman said the city has not had the money to strategically protect neighborhoods from fire. The money could also help provide education and services, such as chipping, for residents mitigating fire danger on their own property.
He noted the city has 32,000 acres considered wildland-urban interface, or property where homes are intermixed with trees, shrubs and a mountain landscape, putting them at higher risk of fire. Tens of thousands of homes are located in those high-risk areas and could be better defended in a fire if the city did more mitigation on public lands, he said.
"There is no more important need for the city," he said.
For example, mitigation was critical in stopping the Bear Creek fire last November from becoming a disaster.
The community has also seen wildfire catastrophes in the recent past. In 2012, the Waldo Canyon fire burned about 18,000 acres and 347 homes, and the following year, the Black Forest fire burned 14,280 acres and 489 homes.
"We have to got to take this threat very seriously," Fire Marshal Lacey said.
Fire officials have already prioritized open spaces that could see mitigation efforts over the next five years. Some of those areas include Cheyenne Mountain State Park, Palmer Park, Austin Bluffs Open Space, the north slope of Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods, the planning document said.
How much acreage the city could mitigate every year could vary based on the type of terrain, Lacey said. Contractors have charged between $1,400 an acre up to $5,000 an acre in areas with steep slopes.
The department will continue to look for additional funding whether or not the retention question passes. If it does pass, the city could likely provide the matching dollars for much larger grants to do more work, he said.
The city has accumulated more "standing kindling" in recent years, Lacey said, following drought conditions that have killed or harmed many trees throughout the city.