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Finding a way to understand government budgets

Fri, Dec 14, 2012

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As winter deepens, an older man’s fancy turns to — the Poincaré conjecture.

Most readers will, I’m sure, be familiar with the classic problem in topology first posed by Henri de Poincaré in 1908. It states: Every simply connected, closed 3-manifold is homeomorphic to the 3-sphere.

So absurdly simple! And yet, it baffled mathematicians for almost 100 years, until Grigory Perelman proposed a most elegant solution in a series of papers published in 2002-2003, which you can find on arXiv.

It makes interesting reading, I’m sure. And I know that it’s really, really important. And I don’t understand a word of it.

Had I been a lot smarter, and had I spent my youth poring over many a volume of quaint and forgotten lore, then I might be able to appreciate Perelman’s brilliance.

Perelman manipulates arcane symbols and esoteric mathematical formulae to explain a world that we cannot directly sense or understand — as do the diligent bureaucrats who create city and county budgets.

Download the 2013 Colorado Springs city budget (it takes a while for the 362 pages, even for our extraordinarily fast, decade-old desktops at CSBJ) and you’ll encounter a dizzying array of facts and figures, of aspirations and appendices, of city clerks and cemeteries, of golf courses and GFOA analyses.

And once you’ve given up trying figure it out, take a shot at the county. On second thought, don’t bother. The county is both a division of state government and an independent entity. It’s a quantum phenomenon, like the mysterious particles that can be in two places at once.

Even Perelman might have a hard time making sense of it. It’s there and not there, a tantalizing world just beyond our ken.

Walk down Tejon Street. We see the buildings, the businesses, the streets, the cars, the people — but we don’t know how they’re connected unless we’ve lived here for a while. Then we know that Gen. William Palmer laid out the street grid, that Jerry Rutledge has sold men’s clothing on Tejon for more than 40 years, that Sam and Kathy Guadagnoli own the lively bars and clubs on Tejon between Pikes Peak and Kiowa, and that Preston Tucker unveiled the Tucker Torpedo at the City Auditorium in 1948.

You come to understand the city by osmosis, by being a part of its life and history. Those who prepare, present and implement city and county budgets may understand the documents — we don’t.

Like the government it pretends to describe, the city budget is complex and opaque. Generations of city officials have embraced transparency and achieved opacity, because the city isn’t just a city, but a strange mashup of unrelated enterprises and operations. The airport manager understands the airport, the fleet manager understands the fleet, the cemetery manager understands the cemetery, and all share a common goal: money.

Revenue flows in to the city through taxes and fees, and flows out to fund services. Like feudal lords, department heads guard their fiefdoms, make alliances of convenience, engage in polite warfare with their peers, and join with them to oppose common dangers. The budget models these conflicts, papers over differences, and moves the lumbering enterprise down the road.

For an innocent layperson, figuring out the budget is like trying to solve Poincaré’s conjecture without the fundamental tools of advanced mathematics. No calculus, no differential equations, no Ricci flow, nothing but a slide rule that you’ve forgotten how to use.

Who you gonna call? Not Ghostbusters, especially now that Bill Murray has somehow become Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not Doug Bruce — he’s busy doing his taxes. And not the Dark Lords of Colorado Springs Utilities — they understand governmental budgeting all too well, but they won’t share their knowledge. Would Gollum give you the One Ring?

Try calling Brenda Morrison instead. She’s smart — after all, she’s Marcy and Buddy Morrison’s daughter. Brenda lives in Denver, working for a public-policy development outfit called Engaged Public. And she has a present for you — the Backseat Budgeter, which is under development for El Paso County.

It’s a deceptively simple program that enables you to write your own budget, see how the parts are related, and how altering individual inputs changes the whole. You can look at the county version on http://www.backseatbudgeter.com/budgets/elpasocounty2012/. It’s far from complete, but its promise is immense. We at the Business Journal will be working with Brenda and Engaged Public as these tools become fully realized.

By next year, who knows? Even newspaper reporters may be able to understand government budgets, freeing us to solve Riemann’s hypothesis regarding the distribution of prime numbers.

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