COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) — When ballots are mailed out this week for the April 4 city election, voters will be asked for a second time to extend the sales and use tax to continue the TOPS (Trails, Open Space and Parks) fund for 20 years.
TOPS is currently scheduled to expire in 2025, and collects a penny out of every $10 in tax revenue; the fund finances maintenance and acquisition of parks, trails and open spaces.
City officials have said that continuing the fund will allow them to provide more public recreational ares that could be targeted for development, and try to keep up with a $270 million maintenance backlog due to years of underfunding for the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services.
“So, if we didn’t have that roughly $13 million available annually from TOPS to make trails possible, improve the park properties and fortunately purchase these open space opportunities, we wouldn’t have those outdoor resources everyone values,” said city parks and recreation director Britt Haley.
In November 2021, the city asked voters to extend the tax and raise it by a penny to increase revenue for TOPS to more than $11 million annually, but the measure failed, 54% to 46%, at the polls.
Some citizens said that asking for a tax increase during the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t a good idea, while others said that acquiring open space should be kept separate from regular parks maintenance.
The latter concern is being expressed again by the group Cheyenne Central, which also opposed the 2021 measure; on its website, the group states:
“Please stop trying to restructure the Trails and Open Space tax that is currently largely dedicated to Open Space Acquisition. This tax doesn’t need to be renewed now and the next mayor should be allowed to handle it. Why the rush?
While the proposed language is better than the heavily developer funded TOPS tax which voters rejected in November 2021, the structure is still the same. The proper way to do this is to keep Open Space separate from the city parks which are supposed to be funded by the general fund. At a minimum, to ensure that these spending appropriations stick, the only way to do that is to make this a Charter Change. Otherwise, as Richard Skorman publicly warned, we cannot bind a future administration or council to any appropriation parameters.
I will vote against this again, unless you make it a Charter Change to ensure that these spending allocations stick, and add language that protects our current open spaces from being poached by developers. Our Open Space land is non-negotiable which is why voters approved TOPS in the first place – to acquire and protect open space.“
Susan Davies, director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition said that she hopes not seeking a tax increase as part of the ballot question will increase public support, but that its passage can’t be overemphasized.
“What you see, is as good as it’s ever going to be (if the measure fails),” she said. “Everything starts here, and then just goes downhill. So it’s absolutely imperative that we extend this program.”
Next week, the City Council expects — on its second and final vote — to approve allocating $7.6 million from the TOPS fund to acquire more than 1,000 acres of the former Wild Horse Ranch in El Paso County.
“I’ve been told that’s the last large parcel of property that may ever be available for open space,” Haley said. “Everything else is being developed for houses. So this is our chance to take advantage of an opportunity before it’s gone for good. The city is growing and people want more recreation.”
While many people wonder why the city keeps acquiring open space when it can’t adequately maintain its existing parks facilities, Davies offers a reason.
“Maintaining parks is expensive,” she said. “We have to find another way to fund that. But acquiring open space gives us more bang for the buck, and it’s a lot cheaper to maintain.”
For more information about the TOPS ballot question, visit: https://coloradosprings.gov/city-clerk/page/whats-ballot, or https://www.trailsandopenspaces.org/tops/.