Hiking Bob: Proposed ballot would extend TOPS program, set aside money for land purchases

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View of Pikes Peak from Bluestem Prairie Open Space

Bob Falcone

Ballot language proposed at the Colorado Springs City Council work session this week would give voters in the April 2023 city election the opportunity to extend and make some tweaks to the Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) program, without increasing its 1-cent-on-every-10-dollars sales tax rate.

Putting the question to the voters in April was spurred by the failure of a ballot issue to extend the life of the program in November 2021. That ballot measure was considered by many to be too complex and suggested too many broad changes to the program, while also asking for a tax increase. The new ballot issue is much simpler and doesn’t have the broad changes or tax increase of the losing measure.

Created by a citizen-led initiative in 1997, and due to expire at the end of 2025, the 25 year-old-program has been responsible for preserving 7,200 acres of open space, including Red Rock Canyon, Blodgett Peak, Stratton and Bluestem Prairie open spaces. The program also was a tool used to create and expand Cheyenne Mountain State Park and almost doubled the size of Ute Valley Park. The program was used to purchase Corral Bluffs Open Space, which turned out to be the home of never-before-seen paleontological artifacts that appear to solve the riddle of what happened in the evolutionary cycle after dinosaurs became extinct.

The new ballot initiative will not only ask the voters to extend the program until 2045, but also will set aside 75 percent of funds in the Open Space category to be used only for acquisition of new lands, and will also allow “funds dedicated to maintenance and restoration trails and open spaces” to be used for any trail or open space, even if not originally purchased with TOPS funds. The last provision would help resolve an issue in places like Ute Valley Park and Austin Bluffs Open Space, both of which have traditionally acquired land and land purchased with TOPS funds.

Under the current ordinance, Ute Valley Park, for example, is treated as two different open spaces because one half was acquired with TOPS funds — and that half can only be maintained with TOPS funds and staff — while the other half is maintained with general park department funds. As a result, the two halves of the park, due to differing budgets, see different levels of improvement and maintenance. Austin Bluffs Open Space is in a similar situation; different parcels within the open space have different funding sources.

The language to set aside 75 percent of funds in the TOPS Open Space category for future land purchases was added to address concerns expressed at recent TOPS Working Committee and Parks Advisory Board meetings, by both citizens and board members, that funds could someday be shifted away from purchasing additional land and allocated instead for maintenance. While the revision to the program would guarantee at least 75 percent would be dedicated solely to future land purchases, audits conducted by the the city auditor show that since 2016, 82.6 percent of the open space category — totaling more than $26 million — has actually been spent on land acquisitions. You can read the results of the audit, which credits the program with “commendable practices” in administering the program, in the report below.

The proposed ballot question has several more steps to go through to make it to the April election. The TOPS Working Committee will be presented with the ballot language on Jan. 4, and then decide whether or not to present it to voters. Their recommendation will then go to the Parks Advisory Board, which will take into consideration the recommendations of the TOPS committee before deciding whether to make their own recommendations. On Jan. 10, City Council will make its final decision regarding a formal presentation to voters. Since the regularly scheduled Parks Advisory Board meeting is after Jan. 10, it is anticipated that it will have a special meeting sometime between the Jan. 4 TOPS committee meeting and the Jan. 10 City Council meeting to take up the issue. The date and time of their special meeting has not been set as of the time of this writing.

The proposed ballot language, as of Dec. 15, is below. Depending on the recommendations of the TOPS Working Committee, Parks Advisory Board, and City Council, and legal requirements for certain wording, the final version may change.

You can learn more about the TOPS program at the city’s website, here.

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TOPS Proposed ballot language

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