MedWheel’s work on the TOPS program

It is hard to keep the public’s money working for the public’s good health, clean enjoyment, and safe environment. Immediate needs tempt lawmakers to divert resources away from acquiring new properties, jeopardizing systematic development. To support the TOPS program and its ability to enhance our community as it grows, MedWheel advocates consistently and tactfully for TOPS, regularly attending meetings regarding the program. Here is some background on the program and our involvement with it.

What does the TOPS tax do?

Under the TOPS program, the city levies a 0.1% sales and use tax to fund the TOPS program. TOPS raises over $11M/yr.
The money is allocated: 3% for administration plus 6% for maintenance off the top. The remaining 91% is divided up into Open Space (60%), Trails (20%), Parks (20%). The TOPS program has purchased and protected over 7,500 acres of open space, and built or improved 67 parks and 53 miles of trail.

The Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department manages the program as a separate account within the city budget. Citizens give input through the TOPS working committee. The city audits the program every year and reports on the spending. Voters initially approved the TOPS tax in 1997 as a petitioned measure. It was reaffirmed and extended in 2003 as a council referred ballot measure. Additional changes were made by a referred ballot in 2013, which notably allowed use funds in the Parks category for maintenance, on ANY parks property, not just TOPS ones.

What’s in it for mountain bikers?

TOPS program funds have been used extensively for construction of single-track trails in our open spaces, typically from the Open Space category (not the smaller Trails category). TOPS Open Space funds have paid for facilities at trailheads, including parking lots and bathrooms throughout the system.

Some of our favorite TOPS projects include: Red Rock Canyon OS including funding construction of several trails including Lion Trail. Stratton OS. Austin Bluffs OS. Half of Ute Valley Park (the HP side). Pikeview quarry frontage property makes up ~1/3 of the Blodgett OS (all purchased by TOPS), with the quarry itself still slated to be donated to the city and turned into a world class bike park, following remediation over the next ~2 years. Black Canyon quarry – envisioned to become a new trailhead for the Waldo canyon area after remediation (timeframe not yet determined). Shooks Run, Sand Creek TrailsUnion MeadowsBlueStem Prairie OS. El Pomar Youth Bike Park at Hillside gardens. The new Fishers Canyon OS is destined to be a popular addition with valuable trail connections to extend the Chamberlain trail.

Losing ground
During the 2009 Recession, the city was forced to drastically cut spending from general sales tax. Because of restrictions in Colorado’s TABOR measure, when the economy bounced back the next year, the general fund could not return to prior levels. Other city needs including police and fire had their budgets increased, while Parks’ funding was stuck at less than 50% compared to before, and this funding shortfall remains with us today. In response to the budget cuts, Parks staff updated their definition of ‘stewardship’ within the TOPS program, and began to use TOPS to fund Rangers’ salaries and other operating costs previously supported from the general fund.

A change to TOPS
Any change to this voter approved program must be made via a ballot of the people. In 2013, a successful ballot measure was referred by council, allowing funds from the 20% Parks category to be used for maintenance of all Parks properties. This helped staff to better care for facilities especially neighborhood parks (and reduced TOPS’ ability to purchase more land for such parks).

In November 2021, Colorado Springs’ council referred a TOPS extension to a voter ballot. This proposal included several major changes:

  1. Double the TOPS sales tax, from 0.1% to 0.2%
  2. Extend the program to 2045
  3. Change the allocation of tax dollars:
    a. 5% for administration
    b. 25% for maintenance
    c. 70% for Trails, Open Space, and Parks in the ratio 3:3:4.

MedWheel eventually supported this measure, despite some serious concerns. We saw several important benefits that would be realized if it passed:

More funds overall and more flexibility in the program would likely result in funds allocated for future construction of a major bike park, current planned to be located at the Pikeview quarry site.

More funds in the Trails category would have created better urban and regional trails, improving riding access to trailheads.

Staff had committed to paying TOPS Rangers using an expanded allocation for maintenance, potentially leaving more funds in the Open Space category. Furthermore the proposal by city council suggested that the allotment for acquiring new Open Spaces should not decrease – but this was a suggestion only and not a requirements of the revised measure.

The proposal included a ‘maintenance of effort’ (MofE) clause urging, though not binding, future city councils to not reduce general fund’s support for parks.

MedWheel’s major concern with the proposal is that it did not provide any protection in writing against the entire TOPS program being converted to a maintenance fund at some time in the future. Our concern was shared by many community members including most of the original advocates who created TOPS in 1997.

Ballot failure in 2021
The ballot noted above was rejected by voters. We can attribute this to several factors including a high degree of confusion in the language, which sought to change a lot of things about TOPS all at once. The most vocal opposition came from citizens who did not want to see TOPS become a maintenance slush fund. MedWheel immediately began working on improved language for another measure that would include better language to ensure TOPS could continue to purchase new open spaces into the future.

Ballot success in 2023

Working diligently with local advocates as well as experts such as the Trust for Public Land, MedWheel was able to gain support from Mayor John Suthers, city council, parks board and TOPS working committee, to include language that requires 75% of the open space category to be used for acquisition of new properties only. While we do believe that the city of Colorado Springs should increase its support of maintenance of our Parks, we want to see this support come from other sources and not at the expense of our wonderful Open Space program. With broad political support for this idea, we saw a TOPS ballot in April 2023 that preserved the important aspects of the program, extended it until 2043. The measure passed at 79%, a huge margin for a tax measure, reflecting the popularity of the program as well as the support for the language to protect its primary purpose: acquiring more open space for the citizens of our region. Our director Cory Sutela said at the time, “Colorado Springs’ identity is tied to our amazing public open spaces. They are why we all choose to live here. The success of the TOPS extension means more open spaces and more potential to expand our great bike trail network.”