Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Diversion of Open Space Funds May Now Be Dead Except for Park Ponds

Prior to the Mayor's deletion of item 13.2 from yesterday's City Council agenda, substantial pushback to the proposal began to show up especially from some members of City Council who either felt uninformed or feared the loss of money that they could tap into for future park ponds. There must have been considerable emailing back and forth among members during an discussion of an earlier agenda item. I'm privy to some of that.

Just a few minutes ago I sent an email message to the Mayor and Ms. Niland. Here is what I wrote:

"Mr. Mayor and Ms. Niland,

"It appears that there is substantial pushback to the proposal to divert up to $3.2 Million from open space funds for flood issues. I certainly understand your need to delete the item yesterday, Mr. Mayor. Given the pushback from some on City Council and substantial opposition to the proposal among many in the public, it may be best to just let this one die. I like "creative financing" but know that there are funds elsewhere to accomplish the same tasks. Additionally, the current PSB rate increase now just makes more sense. 

"I have been concerned that some see open space funds as just a means of buying "pretty" land. As you know, those funds are to purchase natural open space land that has stormwater function. In other words, those funds are meant for the health, safety and welfare of all persons in the City of El Paso. I have also been concerned that the open space funds will become just a "slush" fund for other projects. I know that you both do not want that to happen and I appreciated your willingness to place restrictions on the proposal. But given the failure of some to see that the funds are meant for the safety of El Pasoans and instead see them as a frivolous means of purchasing and conserving land for being simply "pretty", then the use of this money as a slush fund may become the rule and not the exception in spite of our best intentions.

"Of course, conserving land is critical given the scarcity of our most precious and needed commodity: water. Moreover, such conservation prevents the burden of higher property taxes for additional infrastructure, maintenance and services. Too much development on the edges of a town does not pay for itself but creates additional expenses for the city and the taxpayers. Infill projects such as the Northgate project which you approved yesterday and called "incredible for the city" do more than pay for themselves - they are indeed a boon for jobs.

"I certainly value and appreciate the leadership both of you are giving the city. Your theme that El Paso is open for business is so exciting and it is working. Jobs mean more revenue from sales tax and thus a way to alleviate the increasingly unbearable burden of property taxes. I am grateful to you for seeking my input. I hope that we can continue to work together on many other items. "Green" and "prosperity" go hand in hand. A resilient city needs both. You know that you can call on me at any time. 

"Sincerely and with all best wishes,

Jim Tolbert"

Let us hope that this is now a dead issue and move on to the more critical issues of water scarcity and land conservation. There is much to be done here and park ponds are not part of the solution. Those on Council who wish to take open fund money for park ponds are doing so against ordinance.

Let me quote Charlie Wakeem from an email he recently sent:

"No where in the Municipal Drainage System Ordinance of June 19, 2007 does it state that the 10% money could go for park ponds.  If that was the intent of council while you were there, Susie, then it should have been stated in the ordinance.  The ordinance specifically states, Section III (C) "Notwithstanding anything herein to be contrary and even to the extent such operation may constitute storm water maintenance, the city shall continue to be responsible for ... (iv) parks"."  Section III (D) "The Capital Plan shall identify stormwater infrastructure projects (including land acquisitions) which have the potential dual purposes of storm water management and preservation of the City’s open spaces, greenways, arroyos and wilderness areas in their natural state in accordance with the City’s Open Space Master Plan and the City’s Parks and Recreation Master Plan (“Green Projects”).  The Board shall allocate an amount equal to ten percent (10%) of the System’s annual drainage utility revenues for such Green Projects". [emphasis added]  There is nothing ambiguous about the ordinance.  If council wants to change the ordinance to include park ponds, they have the power to do so, but it wasn't what the community voted for when it endorsed the ordinance which established the Municipal Drainage System.

"I've always been in favor of park ponds where they are safe (i.e. shallow in grade and depth), but it's a Parks budget item, not the Storm Water Utility's.  Also, ponding areas should be planted with the use of native vegetation, which do not require watering and manicuring, as recommended in both the Parks and Open Space Master Plans."

I'll write more about all of this later.

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