El Paso County considers selling parks | VailDaily.com

El Paso County considers selling parks

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado ” El Paso County officials are looking at selling park land, including regional parks, to raise money because revenues are coming in below expectations.

El Paso County boasts on its Web page that it “provides some of the best parks in the Pikes Peak region.” The county has more than 7,000 acres of park land, mainly in large chunks such as Bear Creek Regional Park and Black Forest Regional Park.

Officials are examining which parcels they are permitted to sell. Some can’t be sold because they were donated under conditions that prohibit a sale or have other legal restrictions, said Dennis Hisey, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners.

Hisey said Thursday the sales are unlikely to reduce the county’s park inventory by more than 50 percent. The county wants to sell to other government agencies that would keep the land as open space, Hisey said. But he wouldn’t rule out that a regional park could become a condo development. The land might end up going to the highest bidder, he said.

“It is a very extreme measure that we would hope to avoid, but there are no sacred cows out there right now,” he said.

The county commissioners expect a report in June on which properties could be sold.

At the same time, the county plans to lay off some of its roughly 2,100 employees, Hisey said. Details will be available in about two weeks, he said.

“We don’t want to panic our employees until we know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We hope to use attrition as much as possible, but . . . there has to be a reduction in force.”

El Paso County provides government services including managing welfare benefits, the Sheriff’s Office, tax collections, coroner, health department and other agencies.

The county’s budget calls for spending $233 million this year, an increase of 25 percent from the $186.5 million spent in 2001. The money comes from a 1 percent sales tax, a property tax and fees.

Hisey said he couldn’t guess how much a park land sale would bring in.

“We’re not out getting appraisals or setting up an auction or something like that, we just want to know what we could sell if it came down to that,” he said.

The county took in about $3 million less than it expected to so far this year, and costs including gasoline and employee medical claims are up, according to figures Finance Director Nicola Sapp reported April 28.

A citizens group is examining options for asking voters for a sales tax increase in the November election. Adding a 1 cent tax for every dollar of purchases in El Paso County would bring in about $70 million a year. The county now has a 1 percent sales tax. Doubling that amount would increase the county’s budget by nearly a third.

The county could have preserved its park system if it had acted earlier to ask voters for more money, said Donna Scheeter, the former superintendent of interpretation for the county’s Department of Parks and Leisure Services. Scheeter, who retired in 2007, noted that county voters have supported past tax requests for parks, including a measure to rebuild the Bear Creek Nature Center after a fire destroyed it in 2000.

“There have been opportunities to ask the people if they wanted to support parks through additional sales tax, through additional property tax, and they would never allow it to come to the ballot,” Scheeter said. “So all of the hard work that the El Paso County parks departments staff and volunteers have accomplished over the years would be sold down the river at the expense of the community.”

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