Colorado Springs cuts into services considered basic by many
By Michael Booth
The Denver Post
Posted: 01/31/2010 01:00:00 AM MST
Updated: 01/31/2010 09:17:44 AM MST
COLORADO SPRINGS This tax-averse city is about to learn what it looks and feels like when budget cuts slash services most Americans consider part of the urban fabric.
More than a third of the streetlights in Colorado Springs will go dark Monday. The police helicopters are for sale on the Internet. The city is dumping firefighting jobs, a vice team, burglary investigators, beat cops dozens of police and fire positions will go unfilled.
The parks department removed trash cans last week, replacing them with signs urging users to pack out their own litter.
Neighbors are encouraged to bring their own lawn mowers to local green spaces, because parks workers will mow them only once every two weeks. If that.
Water cutbacks mean most parks will be dead, brown turf by July; the flower and fertilizer budget is zero.
City recreation centers, indoor and outdoor pools, and a handful of museums will close for good March 31 unless they find private funding to stay open. Buses no longer run on evenings and weekends. The city won't pay for any street paving, relying instead on a regional authority that can meet only about 10 percent of the need.
"I guess we're going to find out what the tolerance level is for people," said businessman Chuck Fowler, who is helping lead a private task force brainstorming for city budget fixes. "It's a new day."
Some residents are less sanguine, arguing that cuts to bus services, drug enforcement and treatment and job development are attacks on basic needs for the working class.
"How are people supposed to live? We're not a 'Mayberry R.F.D.' anymore," said Addy Hansen, a criminal justice student who has spoken out about safety cuts. "We're the second-largest city, and growing, in Colorado. We're in trouble. We're in big trouble."
Mayor flinches at revenue
Colorado Springs' woes are more visceral versions of local and state cuts across the nation. Denver has cut salaries and human services workers, trimmed library hours and raised fees; Aurora shuttered four libraries; the state budget has seen round after round of wholesale cuts in education and personnel.
The deep recession bit into Colorado Springs sales-tax collections, while pension and health care costs for city employees continued to soar. Sales-tax updates have become a regular exercise in flinching for Mayor Lionel Rivera.
"Every month I open it up, and I look for a plus in front of the numbers instead of a minus," he said. The 2010 sales-tax forecast is almost $22 million less than 2007.
Voters in November said an emphatic no to a tripling of property tax that would have restored $27.6 million to the city's $212 million general fund budget. Fowler and many other residents say voters don't trust city government to wisely spend a general tax increase and don't believe the current cuts are the only way to balance a budget.
Dead grass, dark streets
But the 2010 spending choices are complete, and local residents and businesses are preparing for a slew of changes:
The steep parks and recreation cuts mean a radical reshifting of resources from more than 100 neighborhood parks to a few popular regional parks. The city cut watering drastically in 2009 but "got lucky" with weekly summer rains, said parks maintenance manager Kurt Schroeder.
With even more watering cuts, "if we repeat the weather of 2008, we're at risk of losing every bit of turf we have in our neighborhood parks," Schroeder said. Six city greenhouses are shut down. The city spent $19.6 million on parks in 2007; this year it will spend $3.1 million.
"If a playground burns down, I can't replace it," Schroeder said. Park fans' only hope is the possibility of a new ballot tax pledged to recreation spending that might win over skeptical voters.
Community center and pool closures have parents worried about day-care costs, idle teenagers and shut-in grandparents with nowhere to go.
Hillside Community Center, on the southeastern edge of downtown Colorado Springs in a low- to moderate-income neighborhood, is scrambling to find private partners to stay open. Moms such as Kirsten Williams doubt they can replace Hillside's dedicated staff and preschool rates of $200 for six-week sessions.
"It's affordable, the program is phenomenal, and the staff all grew up here," Williams said. "You can't re-create that kind of magic."
Shutting down youth services is shortsighted, she argues. "You're going to pay now, or you're going to pay later. There's trouble if kids don't have things to do."
Though officials and citizens put public safety above all in the budget, police and firefighting still lost more than $5.5 million this year. Positions that will go empty range from a domestic violence specialist to a deputy chief to juvenile offender officers. Fire squad 108 loses three firefighters. Putting the helicopters up for sale and eliminating the officers and a mechanic banked $877,000.
Tourism outlets have attacked budget choices that hit them precisely as they're struggling to draw choosy visitors to the West.
The city cut three economic-development positions, land-use planning, long-range strategic planning and zoning and neighborhood inspectors. It also repossessed a large portion of a dedicated lodgers and car rental tax rather than transfer it to the visitors' bureau.
"It's going to hurt. If they don't at least market Colorado Springs, it doesn't get the people here," said Nancy Stovall, owner of Pine Creek Art Gallery on the tourism strip of Old Colorado City. Other states, such as New Mexico and Wyoming, will continue to market, and tourism losses will further erode city sales-tax revenue, merchants say.
Turning out the lights, literally, is one of the high-profile trims aggravating some residents. The city-run Colorado Springs Utilities will shut down 8,000 to 10,000 of more than 24,000 streetlights, to save $1.2 million in energy and bulb replacement.
Hansen, the criminal-justice student, grows especially exasperated when recalling a scary incident a few years ago as she waited for a bus. She said a carload of drunken men approached her until the police helicopter that had been trailing them turned a spotlight on the men and chased them off. Now the helicopter is gone, and the streetlight she was waiting under is threatened as well.
"I don't know a person in this city who doesn't think that's just the stupidest thing on the planet," Hansen said. "Colorado Springs leaders put patches on problems and hope that will handle it."
Employee pay criticized
Community business leaders have jumped into the budget debate, some questioning city spending on what they see as "Ferrari"-level benefits for employees and high salaries in middle management. Broadmoor luxury resort chief executive Steve Bartolin wrote an open letter asking why the city spends $89,000 per employee, when his enterprise has a similar number of workers and spends only $24,000 on each.
Businessman Fowler, saying he is now speaking for the task force Bartolin supports, said the city should study the Broadmoor's use of seasonal employees and realistic manager pay.
"I don't know if people are convinced that the water needed to be turned off in the parks, or the trash cans need to come out, or the lights need to go off," Fowler said. "I think we'll have a big turnover in City Council a year from April. Until we get a new group in there, people aren't really going to believe much of anything."
Mayor and council are part-time jobs in Colorado Springs, points out Mayor Rivera, that pay $6,250 a year ($250 extra for the mayor). "We have jobs, we pay taxes, we use services, just like they do," Rivera said, acknowledging there is a "level of distrust" of public officials at many levels.
Rivera said he welcomes help from Bartolin, the private task force and any other source volunteering to rethink government. He is slightly encouraged, for now, that his monthly sales-tax reports are just ahead of budget predictions.
Officials across the city know their phone lines will light up as parks go brown, trash gathers in the weeds, and streets and alleys go dark.
"There's a lot of anger, a lot of frustration about how governments spend their money," Rivera said. "It's not unique to Colorado Springs."
Michael Booth: 303-954-1686 or email@example.com
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