Friday, May 1, 2009

Something's Come Between Us

It's official. There's a new governing body with taxing and regulating authority along the Fountain Creek watershed between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Gov. Bill Ritter signed a bill yesterday creating the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District. It's being hailed, at birth, as the herald of a new era of cooperation and comity between the famously feuding cities -- as something that will turn the Fountain into an "amenity" which both cities can share pride in. We'll sing camp fire songs together along the banks of the bucolic Fountain -- and hope that an errant turd doesn't float by to spoil the moment.

The best laid plans of mice and men.

Here's what the new district can do, and spend, according to today's Pueblo Chieftain:

"The 60-page measure would establish a nine-member board that would oversee the flood plain from Fountain to Pueblo.Under it, four district boundaries would be created with varying degrees of authority. While the full boundary of the district would include all of Pueblo and El Paso counties, any fees imposed by it would apply only to a smaller area encompassing the watershed.

The panel also would have some land-use authority, but only on a small tract right along the river.

Under the bill, the district would have the ability to impose fees, and place before voters in both counties a new tax to help pay for improvements. It is, however, limited to asking voters for no more than 5 mills, which could raise about $30 million a year.

The district also is to get about $50 million from a Southern Delivery System mitigation fund, which is to be used to get a matching federal grant that could bring in another $150 million."

If the power of a governing body is measured at least in part by its bankroll, this one is beginning with a bang, with $200 million in the pipeline -- so to speak -- and the ability to levy up to $30 million more a year. Its regulatory clout seems modest enough, according to this description. But for people who own land in that "small tract right along the river" -- which may be the most valuable tract they own -- having this new entity looming over them might in time become a major headache, and significant property rights threat, making them nostalgic for the days before the district was formed.

Unmentioned in the story is whether the new district will have any regulatory of legal power over the waters flowing through it -- which would effectively give it regulatory power over every drop of water the city of Colorado Springs releases into the Fountain. What it will have is a bully-pulpit on which to stand and brow-beat El Paso County and Colorado Springs any time a stormwater event or sewage spill occurs (a bully pulpit paid for, in part, by Colorado Springs ratepayers). And these will occur, in spite of whatever precautions we take or infrastructure improvements we make.

Nothing in the story indicates whether the new district will have the ability to sue the city of Colorado Springs or El Paso County for actions it deems harmful to Fountain Creek. Just imagine the wag-the-dog situations we'll see if that comes to pass.

All new government entities are created with noble intentions and modest missions. But the nature of all governments, even ones initially limited in scope, is to grow, increase in power, demand more resources and, in time, become a tool of coercion, higher taxation and oppression. That means that, in time, the FCWFCGD (it really needs a shorter acronym) could become a battle zone rather than a buffer zone; a curse rather than a blessing to land owners along the creek; and yet another bone of contention between the cities -- defeating the purpose for which it was conceived.

Cynical thoughts, pouring cold water on what should be a happy occasion? Perhaps. But there is no "Law of Unintended Consequences" -- only the law of unanticipated ones. And anyone who spends any time watching governments might well worry that the seeds of such a scenario were planted yesterday.

Whether they will bear bitter fruit, or just sweet-smelling flowers, only time will tell.

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