Blame for city’s money issues doesn’t belong to Council

Filed under: Hazlehurst | Tags:

Remember multiple-choice questions? Here’s one.

Our city’s fiscal difficulties are a result of:

1. Feckless, improvident decisions by city council, such as mortgaging the Police Operations Center to pay off their jock pals at the USOC!

2. Feckless, improvident decisions by local voters, who have been consistently led down the primrose path of tax reductions by Douglas Bruce!

3. Feckless, improvident decisions by successive city administrations, which created an overpaid, bloated city workforce!

4. Fate.

5. Something else.

I’ll go with Nos. 4 and 5.

We all know about fate. That’s when you find out that you’ve somehow misplaced a digit, and your checking account balance is $90, not $900 (or in my case $9, not $90). It’s what you get when you wake up one morning and realize that Lionel Rivera is still the mayor.

Something else? That would-be silos, the inviolable voter-mandated fortresses that sequester city funds and set aside tax revenues for specific purposes. Council has no power to alter the terms of such mandates, and must allocate silo tax revenues accordingly. That’s why funds from the 1/10th percent sales tax that supports trails, parks and open space (TOPs) must be spent as specified by the 1997 voter-approved initiative that created the program.

Sixty percent of TOPs proceeds must be allocated to open space acquisition and maintenance, 20 percent to trails, and 20 percent to parks. By law, no TOPs revenue can be used for maintenance of existing parks.

That’s why the city had a half-a-million dollars to buy the Corral Bluffs open space, while simultaneously cutting the overall parks budget by 84 percent.

But TOPs, with revenue of around $6 million annually in a good year, is small potatoes compared to the county-wide Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (PPRTA) or the city Public Safety Sales Tax (PSST). PPRTA levies a 1 percent sales tax, while PSST collects a 4/10th percent tax.

Council has no discretion in these matters. The money has to go exactly where voters decreed years ago, and can’t be used for other needs, no matter how pressing.

To add insult to injury, the city has  as little control over PPRTA, a regional authority which is directed by a nine-person board of directors, three of whom are Colorado Springs city council members. The remaining six include three county commissioners, and representatives from Manitou, Ramah and Green Mountain Falls. The latter three municipalities have populations of 4,980, 120, and 773, compared to the city’s population of 414,658. Tax revenues from city residents supply at least two-thirds of the authority’s funds.

It’s not exactly taxation without representation, but it’s certainly taxation with scanty representation.

PSST revenues must go to public safety, as defined in the 2001 voter-approved measure. Most of us believe, with reason, that public safety is the primary function of government (and if you disagree, ask the unfortunate citizens of Iraq, Pakistan, Congo or northern Mexico). But that doesn’t mean that the needs of public safety are absolute and invariable.

All three measures reflect citizen distrust of government. Thanks to both tireless propagandizing from the anti-tax right and a certain arrogant incompetence on the part of some municipal officials, voters have concluded that Colorado Springs elected officials couldn’t manage a one-car funeral. So we tell them how to spend our money, and they have no choice but to comply.

Will the voters eventually relent, and go back to that quaintly archaic governmental model that we call “Representative Government” ? I doubt it. We’d rather make a mess of things in our own antic way than let Rivera, Gallagher, Small and Paige mess it up for us.

Meanwhile, it was interesting to note that Denver was among the top five fastest-growing large counties in the United States during 2008-2009. Unlike El Paso, Weld or Douglas, Denver is landlocked, with little vacant, developable land.

Denver grew twice as fast as the Colorado Springs metro area, which increased by 1.5 percent.

Does this mean the end of urban sprawl, the abandonment of remote suburbs, and the renaissance of core cities everywhere? Hardly, since of the remaining five fastest growing counties, two are Dallas/Fort Worth suburbs, one is an Austin suburb, and the fourth is the site of North Carolina’s research triangle.

But Denver’s growth sends an interesting message to Colorado Springs. We need to slavishly copy our big brother to the north by promoting infill development, revitalizing our historic core, and improving public infrastructure.

It won’t be that difficult. Just devise a new silo, put it on the ballot, and keep the proceeds away from Council.

They’ll just use the money for parks and streetlights, greedy do-nothings that they are.

John Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 719-227-5861.