MWTA Board votes to support TOPS issue 2C

At our October board meeting the Board of Directors of MWTA voted unanimously to support Nov’21 ballot issue 2C, the Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) tax extension and increase.

MWTA regularly advocates on issues related to the TOPS tax because we recognize the huge impact TOPS had had on trails in our region over the last 24 years. We have been deeply involved in the development of the ballot language. Throughout this process, MWTA and our partners were successful in gaining agreements on important details of the tax. We were not successful in achieving every point on which we advocated. After careful deliberation, our board has voted to endorse the ballot, and we recomment to our members and all Trail Lovers to vote to support it.

Regardless of which way you vote, please get informed about the issues that are important to you and exercise your rights! There are relatively few chances we the public have to steer the direction of our community, voter turnout is expected to be low this time, YOUR VOTE MATTERS MORE NOW THAN EVER.

What is TOPS and what does it do?

Initially passed in 1997 (on the 3rd attempt) and due to sunset in 2025, TOPS is probably the most popular specific tax in the history of Colorado Springs. TOPS is a 0.1% city sales tax that today raises about $10M/yr.  Of that, today 3% is taken off the top for administration, 6% for maintenance; the remaining 91% is allocated 60% for Open Space, 20% for Parks and 20% for Trails. Since 1997 TOPS has funded 7,169 acres of open space, improvement or construction of 66 parks and 50 miles of trail. 

Since the beginning, the 20% Trails category has been mostly used for regional and urban trails, not singletrack. Singletrack, when funded by TOPS, is almost exclusively supported from the Open Space category. Trailheads including parking lots and bathrooms, as well as master plans, are normally paid from the ‘stewardship’ part of the OS category.  Over the last 10 years the definition of ‘stewardship’ has shifted, notably to fund salaries within the TOPS Ranger program.

This may be a good time to re-emphasize the fact that MWTA values our partnership with the Parks dept. We enjoy highly collaborative relationships with TOPS Rangers who (although they don’t always do what we want!) are very conscientious, efficient, hard working and open minded. As a reminder in 2008, the Parks dept budget as part of the city’s General Fund was slashed by more than half and has never recovered. We recognize the TOPS ranger program as essential for the care of our beloved open spaces and trails.

Specific TOPS projects that our members appreciate most:

Red Rock Canyon OS including construction of several trails including Lion Trail. Stratton OS. Austin Bluffs OS. Half of Ute Valley Park (the HP side). PikeView quarry frontage property – will link up with Blodgett OS, 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 3-5 years. Black Canyon quarry – slated to become a new trailhead for the Williams & Waldo area after remediation (timeframe not yet determined). Shooks Run, Sand Creek Trails. Union Meadows. BlueStem Prairie OS. El Pomar Youth Bike Park at Hillside gardens

For a more complete list of TOPS program successes, please visit the Yes on 2C campaign website.

What will change with the new ballot? The ballot proposes to increase TOPS to .2%, or $0.02 in $10.00. It will generate about $20M/yr. The tax would sunset after 20 years until Dec 31 2041.

The average household is projected to pay an additional $1.17/mo or $14/yr if it passes.

The proposed new allocations for TOPS are:

5% = $1M/yr for administration

25%= $5M/yr for maintenance of any trails, OS or Parks, regardless of how they were acquired (can be used on any parks property, providing support for eg the other half of Ute Valley, Palmer Park, Garden of the Gods, and other non-TOPS properties)

21% = $4.2M/yr for Open Space – can be used for Acquisition, Development or Maintenance

21% =$4.2M/yr for Trails

28% =$5.6M/yr for Parks

Why does MWTA support 2C?

  • The expanded Parks category is the fund that will support construction of the PikeView bike park,after reclamation. Reminder, this property is planned for donation to the city, and El Pomar has committed $1M over 10 years for operation of such a park once it has been constructed.
  • The expanded Trails category provides significantly more support for the urban and regional trail network. While not exactly focused on singletrack, this will enable more users to access trailheads and will make biking better in our community.
  • There is a clear need, and significant momentum, for continued acquisition of key OS properties.  A recent example is the Fishers Canyon property that is needed for connection of the chamberlain trail into Cheyenne Mountain State Park and to the McNeil trail on USFS property. Fishers Canyon is a new opportunity that has so far received unanimous support at TOPS Working Committee and Parks Board.
  • The measure includes a ‘maintenance of effort’ (MofE) clause, which means that future councils are less likely to reduce the city’s General Fund support for Parks that exists today.  We say ‘less likely’ because a MofE can’t legally bind a future council. But having this clause will definitely help MWTA in the future when it comes time for public input on Parks and City budgets. We have fought for similar statements in previous ballot issues and haven’t been successful; this represents a step forward.
  • When council voted 9-0 to put the measure on the ballot, they included a statement that it was their intention that at least 75% =$3.2M/yr of the OS category should be reserved for acquisition and development (not for maintenance)
  • Parks staff has promised that today’s ~$1.3M/yr TOPS ranger program will be funded from the 25% maintenance category, meaning that the entire $4.2M/yr for OS is theoretically available for acquisition and trail development.
  • It helps (but won’t completely solve) the “Parks Problem”, which is that despite the recession in 2008 we have had sufficient funds to acquire new properties, but since then our community has seriously lacked the resources to take care of what we already have. 
  • We’ve received assurances that if the measure passes, the parks department will undertake a detailed Trails System analysis, including a comprehensive study of how off-street trails can be used to expand the safe bike network throughout our community.  This will make it safer and easier for our members to get from their homes to trailheads and other places they want to go.
  • We’ve received assurances that  a similarly-detailed analysis within the OS category will be conducted in order to set strategy for future OS acquisitions required to meet our expanding community’s future needs.  **Note that the Parks category has already been the subject of a detailed needs analysis, this document is known as the Jacobs Study.
  • In addition to the bike park, there are many overdue, unbuilt parks throughout the city because of a lack of funds to construct them. This overdue parks construction and the lack of maintenance funding in the department are, today, an impediment to creative solutions for other issues in the parks department. While it’s not the fault of the successful OS program that Parks are underfunded, MWTA believes it is essential to solve these issues to bring our community and parks system back into balance, and enable future negotiations around additional trail opportunities.  
  • Budget approval for TOPS allocations will continue to be auditable, and will be made after presentations and voting by public bodies,  including the TOPS Working Committee, the Parks advisory board, and city council.  MWTA will continue to have a voice in recommending how the funds are used.
  • Passing 2C will reduce the Parks dept reliance on the general fund, eliminating the possibility that these necessary funds could be reallocated for other purposes.

Why did it take so long for MWTA to support 2C?

We believe that open space acquisitions via the TOPS program are vital to our community and form an essential part of the identity of our region. Since its inception the focus of the program has been on OS, and 2C marks a departure from the original intention of the tax.

2C, while increasing the tax overall to meet urgent Parks and Trails needs, does not increase the theoretical maximum funding for OS acquisition.  Furthermore, 2C does not put any legally-binding limits on the portion of any category that could be budgeted for maintenance. It is theoretically possible that 100% of the fund could be converted to maintenance.

Is this likely to happen?  No chance today, but there isn’t assurance of this for the life of the 20year tax.  MWTA has entered public comment at every opportunity (TOPS Working Committee, Parks advisory board, city council, and anyone who will listen) in favor of including legally-binding language in the ballot to protect OS acquisition. While we have received many assurances, and have no doubts about the earnest intentions of today’s staff, elected officials and public boards, we were not successful in getting this language included in the actual ballot language for 2C. We have concerns about our ability to continue to acquire the open spaces that mean so much to us, especially with our community growing so rapidly.

Then why does MWTA support a TOPS ballot that changes TOPS so much?

After lengthy deliberation, the board of MWTA believes that 2C is a compromise that will provide better balance throughout our Parks system, while still maintaining the capacity to support future OS acquisitions (and with them, more trails).  Our director Cory Sutela, as a representative for MWTA,  has been advocating for the TOPS program for over 10 years, particularly during the last year, including serving on the Council Presidents Parks Sustainability Commission which provided recommendations to council directly on this ballot measure. The gains made through this process are significant and were hard fought. It’s hard to imagine a realistic scenario that would gain this much political support in our community.

We attend nearly every Parks Board meeting and TOPS working committee meeting, and will continue to build relationships with these boards, city staff, city council and the mayor’s office.  Even without the language we wanted to protect OS acquisition, we are confident that our advocacy efforts will continue to be successful in bringing the needs of our members to the forefront.  Through these negotiations MWTA’s voice on Parks issues has been strengthened, and we will continue to advocate for appropriate funding mechanisms that can expand opportunities for inspiring trail experiences.

TOPS is a complicated issue.  If you have additional questions about the ballot, MWTA’s position, or how we reached it, please reach out to us any time by email.

Other November ballot measures related to trails to be aware of:

Issue 1A – El Paso County TABOR retention for roads ($13M) and parks ($2M). We wish the split was a little better for parks, but this $2M will make big improvement for our partners at El Paso County Parks.

Issue 2D – $20M city TABOR retention to set up a fire mitigation fund.  The money will be placed in a trust and the interest will be used