City budget brings new meaning to … light bulbs?

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City budgets are interesting snapshots of a particular time — of the beliefs, assumptions and priorities of those who write and approve the documents. What’s emphasized, and what’s minimized? What inconvenient truths are ignored, and what accomplishments aren’t accomplishments at all?

And why are city budgets so complex, so difficult to dissect and so infuriatingly opaque?

Mayor Steve Bach’s 2014 budget hews to the promises he made to voters when he took office in 2011. He’s allocated more resources to police and fire and cut 96 non-public safety positions. He’s added bus service on Sundays and established a new route on Powers Boulevard. It’s a lean and reasonably straightforward budget, but one that leaves many questions unanswered.

Take the city’s $73.3 million capital improvements program. That’s a lot of money, but comparatively little comes from the city’s general fund, which will only contribute $12.4 million of the total. Otherwise, $29.4 million comes from the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, $19.6 million from grants, $3.9 million from the Trails and Open Space tax, $2.5 million from the Public Safety Sales Tax, and the remainder from other categories.

What city budgeters define as “capital improvements” can be surprising.

You might not consider new light bulbs to fit the category, but the city so categorizes the expenditure of $1 million to replace streetlight bulbs with LED bulbs. The argument is compelling; LED bulbs consume much less energy and last much longer than the nasty orange sodium vapor bulbs they will replace … but still. Certain kinds of facilities maintenance are also classified as capital improvements, including a $720,000 “information technology payment – maintenance” and $200,000 for fire and general city facility maintenance. “Critical existing facility repair” is also a CIP line item, amounting to $150,000 this year, and $200,000 annually during the following four years.

Lights and maintenance might be legitimate costs, but calling them capital improvements?

Light bulbs and facility maintenance are entirely legitimate costs, but calling them capital improvements may be stretching things. In an era when City Council members and the public expect the city to begin chipping away at the multi-hundred-million dollar backlogs in capital improvements and stormwater infrastructure, it may be that department heads and budget writers are trying to figure out creative ways to expand or maintain capital improvement budgets.

Looking at such budget line items, you can understand why city budgets are so opaque. Mayor Bach complimented city employees for spending “hundreds, maybe thousands of hours” creating the budget. It achieves a reasonable level of granularity, but going any deeper would require expending tens of thousands of additional hours for very little return. Local government wonks (I’m sure that there are at least six of us in the city) might be delighted by long explanations of every expenditure, but no one else would much care.

One of the more interesting CIP items is buried deep in the Pikes Peak Highway budget: $1.7 million to design a new summit house. Of the funds, $1 million comes from a congressional earmark first appropriated in 1999. At that time, the city and Colorado Springs Utilities had finished a lengthy public process that established two priorities for the mountain: pave the highway and build a new summit house.

The process was short-circuited by the settlement of a lawsuit by the national Sierra Club in which the city agreed to pave the entire length of the highway, do environmental remediation and build previously nonexistent drainage structures.

The million bucks from the feds, which can only be used to plan, design and build a new summit house, sat quietly in an obscure city account for 14 years. It was discovered (if that’s the word) thanks to a casual inquiry from former County Commissioner Jim Bensberg to city CFO Kara Skinner. Over the years, the account had grown to nearly $1.1 million, but federal regulations may forbid recipients to benefit from interest earnings on unused earmarks. Still, it’s nice to have a million or so lying around, ready whenever you are.

One provision of Mayor Bach’s budget may infuriate City Council.

“This budget assumes that City Council will deliver on its commitment to direct Colorado Springs Utilities to offer a discounted municipal water rate,” Bach wrote in his letter of transmittal. ”The parks budget does not include the $1.13 million needed to maintain current watering levels at proposed 2014 rates.”

Politically, it’s a nice little zinger. Council doesn’t like being ordered around, doesn’t like ordering Utilities around, and doesn’t like cutting the underfunded parks/rec/cultural services department. So what will they do?

We’ll see — Mayor Bach has thrown a nice curveball, but Council President Keith King still could hit it out of the park. 

One Response to City budget brings new meaning to … light bulbs?

  1. Thanks for the nice mention, John. In spite of all the stones I’ve hurled at the Mayor the past two years, I’m pleased nonetheless for his efforts (and yours) to kickstart the process to build a new, improved Summit House on Pikes Peak.

    Jim Bensberg
    October 14, 2013 at 3:48 pm