Paying a price for squeezing government

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

Fifteen years ago, Springs voters narrowly approved two tax reduction/tax limitation charter amendments, both sponsored by a then-obscure anti-tax activist, Douglas Bruce.
After a prolonged local recession, highlighted by the utter collapse of the local real estate market (remember when the Wall Street Journal referred to Colorado Springs as “the foreclosure capital of America?”), the voters were looking for someone to blame.
And who better to blame than city government? Hadn’t the feckless city council bulled through a massive tax increase a few years before, claiming it was just a temporary levy? And hadn’t they reneged on their promise, and made this so-called “capital improvements” tax permanent, without asking voter permission?
Well, no, not exactly. In fact, council had made it clear that the tax was urgently needed to fund an enormous backlog of postponed maintenance/capital improvements, and had never promised a public vote.
But the voters didn’t care about the facts — at least, not those particular facts. They were happy to believe the Dougster’s oft-repeated siren song. Government is bad! Government is wasteful! It’s your money! Don’t give it to the politicians! They’ll just hire more overpaid bureaucrats to shuffle papers! Put them on a diet, and make them curb their spendthrift ways!
It didn’t seem to matter that, by any rational measure, city government was efficient, reasonably thrifty, hardly overstaffed and largely concerned with the nuts and bolts of government.
One of Bruce’s amendments mirrored the statewide taxpayer’s bill of rights, which Bruce would succeed in passing a year later. That amendment, with its revenue caps, restrictions on ballot language and mandated voter approval of any tax increases, had some mildly negative effects, but nothing that the city couldn’t live with. The second amendment, which phased out the capital improvements tax, was an unmitigated disaster.
By eliminating the tax, the city was deprived of literally hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue specifically earmarked for capital improvement projects — for bridges, for drainage, for roads, for flood control, for public safety — for the very foundations of the city.
All through the 1990s, the Colorado Springs economy boomed, as did Denver’s, as did the nation’s. But, like a man starving in the midst of plenty, city government couldn’t benefit from the boom — the Bruce amendments simply deprived it of the resources needed to cope with growth. Urgently needed reconstructive work was postponed, and decaying infrastructure was patched, rather than replaced.
By the end of the century, the voters relented, and voted to restore much of the funding that had been eliminated a decade earlier.
But the damage was done. Deferred maintenance is difficult to overcome, whether you’re a city or a private property owner. Abandon a building for a dozen years, and it’s a teardown. Leave a bridge in service for years beyond its designed life, and it crumbles.
That’s what happened to the Cimarron Street Bridge, which should have been replaced a decade ago. But it wasn’t — and last week, a hole simply opened up in the middle of the roadway. Somehow, the city and the state are going to have to find the money to replace it.
Come November, we’ll see another pair of Bruce-authored initiatives on the ballot. Once again, we’ll be told that these are proper and necessary steps to curb our profligate city government, and return a few hard-earned dollars to us, the long-suffering taxpayers of Colorado Springs. And once again, Bruce will be selling us a bill of goods.
His success, or failure, hinges on whether a majority of voters are ready to fall for the cynical anti-government mantra that has worked so well for a generation of politicians.
It’s easy to dislike government — after all, government generally does things to you, not for you. Government doubles the rates on the parking meters, and then boots your car because you didn’t have any quarters (yup, that was me!).
Government swipes a big hunk of your paycheck before you even get it (me again!). Government digs up the street in front of your house, patches it, and then digs it up again six weeks later (me again!).
Government fills your basement with backed-up sewage, and then claims that it was your fault (so me again!!).
And what does government do for you? Quite a lot, but just as kids who have never seen a farm think that produce just magically appears on supermarket shelves (you mean that stuff actually, like, grows outdoors?!), we rarely link the comfort and safety of our daily lives to the core competencies of government.
We don’t often give our government employees credit for being proactive, responsible and prudent stewards of our collective welfare.
Rather, we look for evidence that they’re just the opposite — lazy, sluggish, lying bureaucrats, who couldn’t organize a one-car funeral.
Take the manufactured kerfuffle over the supposedly absurd prices paid by Colorado Springs Utilities to acquire property for the long-planned Jimmy Camp Creek reservoir. Yes, the prices were well above what transactions between willing sellers and willing buyers might have been — but the sellers weren’t willing.
In the event, Utilities paid 14 separate landowners $6.4 million (including relocation costs) for 400 acres, instead of the $4 million for which the various parcels were appraised. Given that the reservoir is a crucial component of the billion-dollar Southern Delivery System, and given the involuntary nature of the sales, did Utilities get taken to the cleaners? Well, maybe not …
Moreover, they knew perfectly well that this city is notably hostile to the condemnation of private property even for worthy public purposes, so they had Utilities over a barrel. Utilities managers did what any rational executive, private or public, would have done: make the best of a weak hand, and get the job done.
It’s dismaying to realize that, here in Colorado Springs, we have to fight these battles over and over again, despite the clear evidence that such tax rollback/tax limitation ordinances hurt us far more than benefiting us.
Want proof? Take a trip to Denver, and look around at the voter-approved infrastructure that the Denver metro area has built/rebuilt in the last two decades.
It’s a very long list — Denver International Airport, Coors Field, Invesco Stadium, the revived Platte River Valley, the Central Library, the new addition to the Denver Art Museum, the sparkling parks system, Fastracks, the convention center, the vastly improved roads. The taxpayers funded literally billions of dollars of improvements, vaulting Denver into the very first rank of American cities.
Yet, surprisingly, Denver’s tax rates do not substantially differ from those of Colorado Springs.
Ours is a wonderful city, and thanks to the wisdom of the voters in approving the Rural Transportation Authority, the trails, open space and parks extension, and the public safety bond issue, we’re well on our way to overcoming the Bruce-authored silliness of the last century.
Let’s hope that Mr. Bruce, when he once again summons the faithful to take revenge upon the evil empire of Colorado Springs, will find that the faithful are no longer members of the First Church of the Dougster.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 634-3223, ext 241.