Voters got the city into this budget mess – 19 years ago

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

Is Colorado Springs drowning in red ink because of overcompensated city employees and the city’s failure to privatize governmental functions when appropriate?

Can Rock Ledge Ranch, the Pioneers Museum, the city community centers and even city parks be sustained by some combination of volunteer labor and private funding?

Colorado Springs is not the only city in America that has been forced to shed workers, make painful cuts and reduce services. But, aside from half a dozen municipal basket cases that have seen their entire industrial base disappear (think Detroit), our cuts have been the most drastic.

This week, utilities workers began the process of turning off half of the streetlights in the city. This summer, most of our neighborhood parks will be unmowed, unwatered, uncared for and apparently unloved.

Public safety funding has taken a hit as well. No more police helicopters, fewer firefighters, increased response times and less investigation of all but the most serious crime.

Our streets and highways will deteriorate. The funds aren’t there for pothole patching or road resurfacing.

Judging by these cuts, ours must be a city in crisis, one racked by unemployment, shuttered businesses, plummeting real estate values, and a fleeing middle class.

But we’re not.

Unemployment is substantially below the national rate and our military economic base remains strong.

So, the city’s crisis must be entirely of its own making-right? Feckless pols meet greedy, inefficient city workers, and they conspire to drain the city’s resources, waste tax money, pay off their buddies at the USOC, and are taken by surprise when the day or reckoning arrives. Woe, woe is us!

The facts suggest a different conclusion.

To paraphrase our first President Bush, “Read my lips — no new taxes, no old services!”

By almost any measure, Colorado Springs has been an efficiently run city, delivering services to its residents at a cost far below those of comparable municipalities. City tax collections are also lower than those of peer cities.

City elected and appointed officials bear some responsibility for the “perfect storm.” They could have made cuts earlier, they could have refused to fund the USOC retention package, and they could have searched more diligently for ways to economize.

But we, the voters, residents and taxpayers of the city are primarily responsible for the present situation. We voted for TABOR 19 years ago, and simultaneously eliminated a one-half cent tax that had been enacted to fund capital improvements. We gave ourselves the sole power to raise taxes, while approving charter and constitutional amendments with subtle, malicious provisions that forced taxes down in good times and bad. We demanded more services, while continuously reducing the funds available for such services.

We started the fire, and we have to put it out. Rhetoric won’t work. At the very least, we have to eliminate the charter-mandated TABOR ratchet, which will prevent city tax collections from returning to 2006 levels for a decade or more, stifling any recovery. At best, we’ll agree to re-establish a rational and appropriate system of taxation.

But even if we can bring ourselves to pay for city services, we’ll still be a long way from where we need to be.

We can’t stand still. We need to move forward, re-diversify our economy, and invest in our future.

Consider Oklahoma City.

The New York Times reported last week that voters in that once-moribund city have approved tax increases that have “redeveloped the riverfront, renovated the fairgrounds and built a ballpark, sports arena, library, trolley system, and a mile-long canal. For the next 15 years, residents have voted to continue paying for renovation on all the city’s public schools … In December, residents approved a $777 million tax package for a 70-acre central park, convention center, streetcar system, aquatic centers, boating facilities and trails that will be built over the next nine years. “

Devon Energy, a local company made good, is helping fund some of the improvements, as well as erecting a 50-story office building in the heart of downtown.

“It’s pay as you go,” said Ronald J. Norick, who was Oklahoma City’s mayor from 1987 to 1998. “People can see where their money goes and what their money bought.”

After the collapse of the energy boom in the early 1980s, Oklahoma City struggled for well over a decade. Unemployment was around 10 percent, the only hotel downtown was on the verge of closing and the convention center’s roof leaked.

“Our city was dying. You could shoot a cannon at 5 p.m.,  and you wouldn’t hit anybody,” Mr. Norick said.

Of course, we don’t have those problems. If you don’t have a convention center, you don’t have to worry about leaky roofs.  And our downtown revelers have scored plenty of hits with cheap sidearms — no cannons needed.

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

One Response to Voters got the city into this budget mess – 19 years ago

  1. The reason TABOR was voted in and the reason tax levies don’t pass is very simple….a complete lack of faith in the honesty of our elected officials. I suspect that Oklahoma City didn’t have that problem. The core issue is not the voters but the leaders. It takes minutes to ruin a good reputation and years to get it back. No one trusts the mayor or city council. Until that changes I’m voting no on taxes.

    Tim O
    February 6, 2010 at 5:42 am