by Aj Silva, staff writer
On Tuesday, April 4, residents of Colorado Springs will vote to either extend or end the tax they pay to maintain the parks they love. Ballots in the upcoming municipal elections include an item asking voters to decide on funding for local parks and open space.
If passed, Resolution No. 03-23 would allow the city to continue assessing the Trails, Open Space, and Parks Program’s 0.1% sales and use tax through the end of 2045, two decades after it would otherwise expire. The resolution would also slightly change funding usage within the program by expanding the types of trails that the revenue could maintain, and by increasing the percentage of open-space funds used for land acquisition.
On Jan. 10, City Council approved the decision to place the resolution on the April ballot and refer the item to voters since it builds on a series of previous voter decision.
In 1997, city voters first opted to institute the tax and create the program. In 2003, residents approved another voter resolution that sustained the program sales tax through the end of 2025. Although the tax will not expire for another two years, council members supported placing the item on the ballot this year.
The tax program is administered by the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services, while an advisory board, which includes members selected by the City Council, makes the decisions on open space purchases. According to the city’s website, the program has acquired more than 7,500 acres of land for preservation and recreational use in the city since 1997. The program also maintains municipal open spaces, parks, and trails around the city. Some of the areas the program has purchased since the program initially launched 26 years ago include Stratton Open Space and Red Rock Open Space.
According to Susan Davies, Executive Director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition, the 0.1% tax rate equates to “one penny on every $10 spent in the City of Colorado Springs in sales tax.” She says the tax is “the lowest TOPS tax up and down the Front Range.”
In comparison, neighboring Douglas County has a parks tax rate of 0.17%, while other major cities in Colorado have implemented even higher rates. Denver, for example, has a parks tax rate of 0.25%, and Boulder has a rate of 0.62%.
Supporters of the measure cite multiple reasons to vote “yes” on the resolution. In a 2015 PNAS Journal article, Payam Dadvand, a researcher with a Ph.D. in environmental epidemiology, notes that adults and children experience physical and mental health benefits from accessing and using outdoor parks and green spaces. Dadvand notes that children enjoy cognitive development improvements from these assets that could impart lifelong benefits.
Support for the resolution also comes from residents’ desire to preserve the natural beauty of the Colorado Springs area, which in turn requires the conservation of its diverse plant and animal species. According to a 2010 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation report by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, open space provides a city with financial value by reducing water treatment and infrastructure expenses, creating local economic activity, and increasing surrounding land value and limiting property taxes.
Colorado Springs’ program also has a number of projects for improving trails and expanding conservation services that can only be completed with an extension of the existing tax. Davies says that if the majority of residents vote in favor of the resolution, the program could achieve even more since “there are still properties to be purchased.”
“There are still miles of trails to be connected and extended,” she says. “And there are certainly parks to be built.”
Allen Beauchamp, the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Trails and Open Space Coalition, says the city’s general fund lacks the money to cover conservation, park construction, trail and park maintenance, and land purchases, given that the parks budget remains below what it had been prior to the recession in 2008.
“There’s not an easy way to boost that kind of funding,” he says, noting that the program is an irreplaceable asset. “If we lost the TOPS, we would lose the ability to do so many of the things we’re doing right now,” he says.
At the same time, residents might have reasons to vote “no” on the resolution. Some residents might disagree with the spending priorities of the program board or the City Council. They may also believe the city’s other revenue sources are sufficient to maintain trails, parks, and open spaces. Opponents might also think that the extension of the tax is too long or dislike any tax extensions in principle.
Although many Colorado Springs residents do not favor high taxes, they may still support the program if they are aware of the high level of citizen oversight and public accountability the program has. The program’s oversight committee consists of residents who solely are responsible for the tax revenue. Unlike regular government budget funds, the program revenue has to receive a vote of approval from the oversight committee before being spent. That vote can only take place after potential uses for the revenue have already gone through an evaluation process.
Another reason that residents who are typically opposed to taxes may vote “yes” on the resolution is the nature of the TOPS tax as a sales tax.
“The average monthly cost per person for it in Colorado Springs is $1.14,” Beauchamp says.
Colorado Springs residents pay only 60% of the total tax revenues. The other 40% comes from tax revenue on tourism dollars.
For more information on voting in the upcoming election, visit GoVoteColorado.gov.