Lots of taking but not a whole lot of giving back

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Monday was, in case you hadn’t noticed, one of the most glorious Labor Days in years.

Start with perfect weather, balloons galore in the morning, the American Discovery Trail Marathon a little later and ending, as thousands of us did, with beer, wine, backyard cookouts and kids throwing glowsticks in the moonlight.

I went for a bike ride during the morning — a few loops around the Garden of the Gods, then up Gold Camp Road to the end of the pavement, then downtown to America the Beautiful Park to watch friends finish the marathon, and eventually to a favorite coffee shop to recharge.

I ran into a couple of pals, “bike geezers,” bizarrely fit 50-something, semi-retired professionals who always like to talk politics.

They didn’t much like the idea of raising city property taxes. They didn’t have specific reasons for opposing the Jan Martin/Mary Ellen McNally proposal, which will appear on the November ballot, but they knew what they didn’t like.

They knew, or thought they knew, what the city spends its money on.

“Traffic tickets and parking tickets,” said Mike. “They could probably get rid of half the cops, or put ’em to work investigating real crimes, instead of giving people tickets for going 36 in a 30. They never investigate anything like a burglary. When my $3,000 mountain bike got stolen from in front of the Y, it took them 45 minutes to respond. I’ll tell you, if someone had swiped $1,000 from the register at Starbucks, there’d be 16 cops on the street in three minutes.”

I’ve heard dozens of stories like Mike’s during the last few weeks. The storytellers aren’t interested in statistics, in abstract analyses, in the arid details of mill levies, sales tax rates or in payments in lieu of taxes. They don’t think much of city government, or of local governments generally, because their experiences with government have often been unpleasant.

The city sends you bills, not checks. The city makes demands, but it doesn’t offer to help. The city’s employees, by choosing to give you a ticket for a petty offense, can rob you of both money and time. And if you’re unfortunate enough to blunder into a DUI checkpoint when you’ve had three glasses of wine on a Saturday night, you might have to cough up thousands of dollars in legal fees, lose your license and consequently your employment — all thanks to the city!

Just for fun, I made a list of my contacts with local government during the last year.

Four parking tickets, at $20 each.

Home burglarized; police “investigation” non-existent. Found that P.D. devotes almost no resources to investigating residential burglaries.

Spouse ticketed for speeding on Colorado Avenue.

Spouse ticketed for no front license plate and no proof of insurance by sheriff’s deputies in downtown Colorado Springs. Officers notably nasty — tickets dismissed.

Paid utility bills, property tax, vehicle registration fees.

Bought a used car and paid more than $1,000 in sales tax to the city, county, Pike Peak Rural Transportation Authority and the state.

Neighbor complained about our woofing dog. Humane Society officer (AKA the dog police) came to warn us. Dog is 14, sleeps most of the time. Neighbor has three dogs, which have been known to woof … but I digress.

Post burglary, had an elaborate security system installed. Getting used to the system, triggered false alarms. Paid city $25 for each false alarm.

As a former — very former — elected official, I think that I understand city government and city finances. I’ll vote for the mill levy. That doesn’t mean that I have any particular affection for the city, or for any branch of local government.

That’s because the functions performed by any local government, and especially by municipal governments, are inherently unpleasant. I know perfectly well that I’d get speeding tickets, pay fees and taxes, and fight with my neighbors if I lived in New York or New Orleans, in Boston or Austin — with a difference. The taxes would be a lot higher, and the neighbors would be a lot nastier.

City leaders have little choice. They’ll keep the things that I don’t like (traffic cops, parking tickets, taxes and fees), and cut the things that I do like (parks, recreation, trails, flower beds, forestry and community centers).

Meanwhile, it looks as if the once bright and shining vision of a reborn passenger rail network in Colorado has gone dark, perhaps forever. A system that would include passenger rail from Fort Collins to Pueblo, and a rail line from Denver to Glenwood Springs, is now projected to cost $25 billion.

That might not seem like much, in an era when the besuited scoundrels who nearly took down the world financial system benefit from trillion-dollar bailouts, but it’s actually quite a lot of money. Let’s see — it’s more than three times the state’s entire budget, 25 times the cost of the Southern Delivery System and 500 times the cost of the U.S. Olympic Committee deal.

And if the city were to fund the entire railroad, it’d be eminently feasible.

Let’s see, up the charge for parking tickets to $25, and then write a billion tickets. Each of us could expect to get 2,000 tickets — and we’d have a ticket to ride.

John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.