“To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome.”
– Edgar Allan Poe, “To Helen”
The ruins of ancient Rome have fascinated historians, poets and melancholy romantics for centuries. Since Edward Gibbons’ monumental “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” historians have focused upon the politics of decay and collapse.
But before empires, nations or cities can fall, they must build, maintain and rebuild. At its zenith, the Roman Empire circled the Mediterranean, stretching from England to Egypt, from Constantinople to Lisbon, encompassing a quarter of the world’s population.
Rome’s grandeur was anything but romantic. It was created and sustained by practical feats of engineering, by military power, by administrative excellence and by ingenious systems of taxation.
Roman bridges spanned every river in Europe; Roman roads connected the imperial city with its satrapies; Roman aqueducts brought water to cities from distant mountain streams.
Colorado Springs will never rule the known world – and given our quarrelsome, dysfunctional City Council it may not even rule the entire city. But by studying Rome, we learn a simple lesson: build, fix, repair and rebuild. Without functional urban infrastructure, cities fade away.
We’ve fallen dramatically behind all of our peer cities in everything but aqueduct building.
We’re lucky; we don’t have to raise and maintain 30 Roman legions to protect the city, nor do we have to pay for transportation improvements throughout our empire. We do a good job of building and maintaining the aqueducts that transport water from distant mountain sources, but that’s about it.
Rome finally fell to barbarian tribes in the 5th Century. The now-fractured empire was overextended, its economy devastated, its citizens disaffected and rebellious. The creative energy that had once energized Rome had long before migrated to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Empire.
But we don’t have to worry about barbarians from Pueblo, Albuquerque or Denver sacking our town. We’re doing the job ourselves.
We’ve fallen dramatically behind all of our peer cities in everything but aqueduct building. Thanks to a generation of neglect, we’re a billion dollars in the hole. Our stormwater infrastructure is dismal, our roads and bridges are just as bad, and our once-resplendent downtown is tired and shabby.
What happened? How did we screw up so badly?
The answer is simple – we became an imperial city. We didn’t rule all of Gaul, but all of suburbia.
Like the ancient Romans, city officials believed that revenue flows from their new subjects would bring prosperity to all. Revenue increased, but so did expenses. New infrastructure had to be built and maintained even as city policies subsidized explosive suburban growth.
Taxes had to be raised and raised again – and along came the Dougster. The irascible Mr. Bruce brought his Tabor anti-tax charter amendment to town, and persuaded conservative residents to support it.
The 1991 amendment not only forbade local governments to raise taxes without voter consent, but also phased out a recently instituted half-cent sales tax for capital improvements.
The statewide Tabor Amendment and the previously enacted Gallagher Amendment (which established a fixed ratio between commercial and residential tax collections) contributed to local fiscal paralysis.
Voters approved new taxes to support open space, transportation and public safety, but refused to raise city property taxes. The tireless Bruce, peeved by Council passage of a “fee” to pay for stormwater infrastructure, asked voters to nix it – and they did.
So here we are. Midwestern hellholes that we laughed at 30 years ago, such as Omaha and Oklahoma City, have become modern metropolises overflowing with cool. Denver, once a dreary backwater famous only for the “brown cloud” of air pollution that hovered above the city most winter days, is now a world-class city.
And us? We’re the happy subjects of Cleopatra, queen of denial. We think it’s fine to have a coal-fired power plant in the middle of downtown, fine to rely on the federal government to prop up 40 percent of the economy, fine to assume that someone – the feds, the state, El Pomar, Phil Anschutz – will bail us out. We’re Colorado Springs! We’re not like those other cities! We don’t need to raise taxes, or fix roads or do anything that costs money!
And you tell that to Mayor Bach and his developer friends – we don’t need no stinkin’ Olympic baseball health and visitor center, or whatever it is they want. Just shut up and fix the potholes. We know you have plenty of money to do it.