Faced with a severe budget shortfall, Colorado Springs’ officials ordered up a series of cuts in city programs and services this year, including turning off streetlights, closing park restrooms and ending park irrigation.
Six months after the 2010 budget was approved, it appears the effects of the city budget crisis have been far less severe than anticipated and many of those services have managed to survive.
Thanks in part to volunteers and private organizations that have stepped forward, all of the city’s community centers will remain open, as will Rock Ledge Ranch and the Pioneers Museum.
Welling Clark, president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors, praised the efforts of the private sector in helping minimize the pain, including elements of the faith-based community.
Were it not for Woodmen Valley Chapel’s willingness to take over the West Side Community Center, it would have closed, Clark said. “But now I think that we’ll have a better center and be in a better situation than we were before.
The City Council decided to dip into reserve funds to keep the city’s other community centers open at least until the end of the year.
The city’s three outdoor municipal swimming pools also will open this year, two under private management, and the third funded by the city.
Also, thanks to private funding and a modest increase in city support, many of the city’s youth recreation programs will continue.
In one of the larger showings of support, the U.S. Olympic Committee made a two-year commitment of $125,000 annually to support youth sports programs.
Other services, like streetlights, have not been reinstated, but their loss seems to have had little effect.
“When I drive around, I can’t see the difference,” said Vice Mayor Larry Small. “I think that we were significantly overlit. The city engineers may have been applying lighting standards that didn’t take common sense into consideration.”
“I don’t want to minimize the impact of the cuts,” said councilmember Sean Paige. “I know that streetlights make people in more dangerous areas feel safer, but we didn’t just turn off lights randomly. We tried to minimize adverse effects.”
Clark cited just one Westside street where too many lights were turned off.
“They turned off all of the streetlights, thinking that it was an alley, not the sole access for residents,” he said. “I expect that the city will turn them back on.”
And what of the city’s two Vietnam-era police helicopters, which were sold on an internet auction site for $158,000 each, along with personnel reductions in the police force?
“It would be hard to quantify the impacts of losing the Air Unit and the personnel,” said Police spokesman Sgt. Steve Noblitt.
“The helicopters were force multipliers, but we can’t say that we would have caught a particular bad guy if the helicopters were there. And what we’ve lost in personnel has been in crime prevention, in community-oriented policing. We’ve moved people away from those areas to patrol, to be able to respond to calls.”
Noblitt, however, isn’t free of worries.
“In terms of homicide rates, of serious crime, we have a pretty good lifestyle here,” he said. “But in a few years, if these (budgeting) trends continue, we’ll be in trouble. Right now, there’s a 23-percent probability of all units being busy when a 911 call comes in. By 2012, we could increase to 40 percent — and that’s ridiculous.”
Clark is also concerned.
“We’re going downhill, and we’re building momentum,” he said. “It’s fine to pick up airspeed, unless you can’t pull out of a dive.”
Less seriously, city parks could be parched this summer, but there’s no likelihood that they will die.
Colorado Springs Utilities has agreed to make water available to much of the park system through a “large irrigator conservation rate,” which will make water available to the park system at a substantial discount. The agreement is slated for final approval during the April 27 Utilities Board meeting.
“Utilities can’t just give us water,” said Paige, “but the parks will definitely be watered. We may not be able to irrigate as frequently as we’d like to, but we’ll be in fairly good shape, especially if we get some help from Mother Nature.”
Small believes that the city and its residents have successfully dealt with many problems that seemed insurmountable a few months ago.
“The city and the private sector each kicked in about $1 million, and that’s held things together,” he said. “Looking at revenue forecasts, things are looking a lot better than I expected.
“I’m optimistic — I think that we’ll be able to get through this year and next without major reductions, and that the cuts we’ve already made will provide more savings.”
Paige isn’t quite so sure.
“I think that the crunch will last for two or three years.” he said. “I would never argue that cuts had no impact, but I’ve been trying to change the narrative.
“Lots of cities are making cuts, but what makes this one interesting and novel is the response of city residents and city government. Adversity isn’t pleasant, but it does force you to rethink and re-evaluate. That’s something we ought to be doing continually — a budget cut sort of accelerates that process.”