Dave and Becky Ahls’ house is sinking.
After a series of deluges in September, drainages on the Colorado Springs couple’s street gave way, and their home was flooded. Now the house has sunk six inches, and the Ahls are urging the city to help them deal with the immense cost of repairs.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration has paid for the Ahls to hire an engineer and to fill in the sinkhole, but says the rest of the repairs are up to the city.
At a recent town hall meeting, Becky Ahl spoke with Tim Mitros, a city engineer, showing him images of the extensive damage done and copies of letters to FEMA. After Mitros offered to come visit her house and look into the damage, she said, “This will be the third person from the city to come see it, and nothing has been done yet.”
The Ahls live in a small community in Cheyenne canyon, and they say that of the 20 to 30 homes in their neighborhood, about five suffered serious damages. In a recent interview with KRDO.com, Becky Ahl said, “If the storm drain had been maintained properly over the last 50 years, this wouldn’t be happening.”
Costs on the Ahl’s house are estimated to be about 1.7 million dollars, a cost the couple says is unimaginable.
The Morris family, also of Colorado Springs, faced similar damages from the flooding.
“There was leakage all the way from the roof down into the living room,” said Denise Morris. She also notes that the city was absent in the process. “The city was not involved, and insurance companies denied our claim. All of our repairs were out of our own pocket.”
Although her damages had less to do with city-maintained drainage, her situation illuminates issues of insurance coverage.
Behind the damage to the Ahls’ and Morris’ homes is an arduous process by the city of Colorado Springs to develop a program that would revamp the city’s stormwater infrastructure.
After unprecedented amounts of rain led to flooding in September, the city realized that the engineering of stormwater systems from years ago were inadequate for current water levels.
The issue currently at hand is how to deal with the issue. As the city has shifted from a weak-mayor system to a strong-mayor system, conflicts between Mayor Steve Bach and the City Council have stalled progress on the issue.
The center of the conflict is how to pay for repairs. Estimates from the Regional Stormwater Task Force have predicted the work to cost about $686 million in the city of Colorado Springs.
Mayor Bach has allocated $25 million of the budget towards stormwater projects with $9 million of city funds, $7.2 million in grants, and $8.8 million in emergency funds originally meant for ameliorating fire damages.
City Council believes that they should ask voters to approve a stormwater fee that would fund the reparations through taxes. In 2005, the City Council attempted to insert a stormwater fee into city taxes without asking voters (a legal move for city council), but the fee was overturned in 2009.
Mayor Bach, in an interview with the Colorado Springs Independent lamented a tax. “To me that’s the last resort” he told the weekly, alternative paper. “We may get there, [but] I believe we can bridge this over the next half-decade and demonstrate that we can be efficient and effective redeploying existing dollars so that then, even if we need to ask for a tax, we’ve got the confidence of the public.” He is intent on making a change, saying, “We’ve been kicking this can down the road for years, and the time to take action is now.”
At the Wednesday night Town Hall meeting, Bret Waters, Office of Emergency Management Division Manager and representative for the city stormwater project, said that the city has facilitated the prevention of 52,000 tons of debris damage and $1.4 million for individual home damages (less than the estimate from the Ahl’s home alone).
Waters said that FEMA is covering 87 percent of damages, totaling in $10 million.
At the same meeting, Dave Lethbridge, the interim director of Public Works, shed light on Bach’s no tax tactic.
“It cuts out a lot of ballot clutter,” he said. “If there are stormwater fees, education taxes and road and bridge taxes on the ballot they will all get rejected. This way we can take action quickly and make real infrastructural change.”
The city faces negotiations and compromises as plans are worked out, but in the meantime, those suffering from stormwater damage are left to their own devices.
“Right now, our home is in jeopardy,” said Becky Ahl in a KRDO.com video, and her husband said that he would take a fifth of the engineer’s $ 1.7 million estimates for repairs and sell the house to the city rather than repair the damages.
Anna Kelly, City Writer