Management & Labor

Colorado Springs' Do-It-Yourself Government

The citizens of Colorado Springs must decide how much they want from their government, and how much they're willing to pay for it.
by | September 2010

On a hot afternoon in late summer, the city pool at Monument Valley Park in Colorado Springs, Colo., usually would be teeming with children and families -- the kids splashing, swimming and soaking up the August sun. But this year, the pool stayed quiet. Budget cuts forced the city to close all its swimming facilities. A few of them were taken over by a private swim club, but the ones that couldn't find a backer, like Monument Valley, remained shuttered.

"This place ought to be packed," says Kim King, administration manager of the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department, as she stands outside the fenced-off pool in Monument Valley Park. "This should be crawling with kids. But there's nobody here."

Nearby, King points to a set of public restrooms housed in a small Spanish-style building clad in yellow stucco. Those are closed too, with signs on the door: "NOTICE: Due to budget reductions, this facility is closed indefinitely." Opposite that building is a moderate-sized pond with a small island in the middle. Today, the pond stands empty. The city can't afford to maintain it, and the water's been reduced to a stagnant, scummy puddle.

Times are tough in the Springs, as veteran residents call it. Like cities throughout the country, this town has been hit hard by the recession. But its fiscal problems are especially severe. The city is famously right-wing, and property taxes here are some of the lowest in the nation -- in 2008, the per capita property tax was about $55. City revenue instead comes mostly from local sales taxes. As a consequence, Colorado Springs is feeling the downturn's effects faster and more sharply than other cities. At the close of 2009, the city found itself facing a nearly $40 million revenue gap for this year.

So the Springs slashed its budget and enacted a series of severe service cuts to save money. One-third of the city's streetlights were turned off to reduce electricity costs. The city stopped mowing the medians in the streets. (At one point earlier this summer, the medians were so overgrown with weeds that the city was in violation of its own code for property maintenance.)

The parks department was hit especially hard -- its budget was gutted from $17 million in 2009 to just $3 million this year. In addition to closing the pools and restroom facilities, the city pulled out all the trash cans from its parks, since it could no longer afford to collect the garbage. Four community centers and three museums were put on the chopping block, although private donations and some emergency public funds are keeping them open for the rest of the year. With maintenance money wiped out, the vast majority of the city's parks were left to wither and brown in the summer heat. Former flower beds downtown are now just messy tangles of weeds.

And it's not just aesthetics. As money has gotten tighter over the past two years, the city has cut some 550 employees from its work force by eliminating positions or through outright layoffs. Of the 1,600 municipal employees left, 1,200 are police officers or firefighters. Municipal bus service has been reduced by 100,000 hours, meaning buses no longer run in the evenings or on weekends -- a problem in a place where the vast majority of transit riders have no alternative way to get to work. The police department auctioned its three helicopters on the Internet. Spending on infrastructure projects has essentially ceased, and the city faces a $700 million backlog in capital needs.

It's a crisis, to be sure. But in this politically conservative, tax-averse town, it's also something of an experiment. After the impending cuts were announced in fall 2009, the city put a property tax increase on the November ballot. The measure was soundly defeated. Thanks to Colorado Springs' Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), which actually predates the state of Colorado's TABOR by a year, any proposed tax increase must be voted on by the citizens. With their vote, residents made it clear they'd rather suffer service cuts than see their taxes raised.

As a result, other cities are watching, waiting to see if this exercise in stripped-down government might actually serve as a model during tough economic times. City Councilmember Sean Paige is one person who thinks scaling back government's role in the Springs is a good thing. "People in this city want government sticking to the fundamentals," he says. "There's a crybaby contention in town that says, 'We need to raise taxes and we need to get rid of TABOR.' But I think the citizens have made it clear that this is the government people are willing to pay for right now. So let's make it work."

Volunteer Efforts Replace Lost Services

Colorado Springs' service cuts made national headlines when they were rolled out this past spring and summer. After reading the media stories, one half-expects the city to look like some urban dystopia: fallen trees in the streets, boarded-up buildings, roads left dark by switched-off streetlights, drivers swerving around giant, unfilled potholes.

But when actually walking around Colorado Springs, things don't look that bad. The city is hemmed in to the west by Pikes Peak and other spires of the Front Range (the original "purple mountain majesties" in America the Beautiful, which was written here in 1893). Take away the mountains, though, and Colorado Springs could be any mid-sized American city. Downtown consists of a clutch of dun- and clay-colored mid-rises along broad, flat avenues. There's a small, walkable strip of bars and outdoor cafes.

This city of about 420,000 residents also has something of an earthy, hippie side: Acacia Park, a leafy square at the north end of downtown, is ringed by art galleries, an indie music store, a Tibetan imports place, a hookah bar and an Afghan kabob joint. There's even a feeling of progressive urban planning that belies the town's Libertarian reputation. More than 70 miles of on-street bicycle lanes thread their way across the city, and the city manages another 100 miles of urban trails for jogging and hiking. Green spaces downtown are filled with eclectic sculptures by local artists.

In fact, it's easy to walk around the place and wonder what all the fuss is about. So what if there are a few weeds in the medians? Or if some of the streetlights have been turned off? Is that such a price to pay for low taxes and limited government?

Colorado Springs may have gained a reputation as a bastion of right-wing values and small-government ideals, but the city hasn't always been quite so conservative. Thanks to several military bases nearby, as well as the United States Air Force Academy, there's long been a Republican bent to the area. But it wasn't until about 20 years ago that the Springs began to shift to the Christian right. In the 1980s, in a bid to diversify the area's economy, the city began actively courting non-profit organizations to relocate to Colorado Springs. Dozens of groups moved in, especially religious ones.

At one point, Colorado Springs was home to the national headquarters of more than 80 religious organizations, including, most famously, the socially conservative Focus on the Family, which relocated there in 1991. By 1993, Focus on the Family ran a 45-acre campus on the north side of town, with 1,200 employees. Other, similar groups followed, earning Colorado Springs the nickname of "the Evangelical Vatican."

As local politics have swung to the right, Colorado Springs has become more virulently opposed to taxes: Since 1990, the local property tax rate has plunged 41 percent. The local TABOR law, implemented in 1991, imposes an inflation-based cap on the amount of revenue the city can collect. Any revenue over that limit must be returned to taxpayers. That's kept the city government lean and small, even before the recent round of cuts.

The proliferation of non-profit groups has had another effect -- a strong current of can-do volunteerism in the community. As the government has scaled back its services, private organizations have, in many cases, stepped in. In addition to the citizen groups that have taken over some of the pools and one of the city's community centers, companies and non-profit foundations have helped raise funds for visitors' centers and other facilities. At the Phantom Canyon Brewing Company in the center of town, the front of the menu implores diners to "Save the Fountain!" by purchasing a new signature ale -- some of the proceeds go to keeping the water turned on at The Continuum - Julie Penrose Fountain, a giant metal loop that rains water down on kids in America the Beautiful Park. The city cut funding for the fountain a couple years ago.

As the cuts worsened this year, the city has increasingly relied on these volunteers' efforts. By lining up residents to "adopt a trash can," the city's been able to return about one-third of the rubbish bins that were removed from municipal parks. Citizens can "adopt a street light" on their block and have it turned it back on by paying a donation -- between $100 to $240, depending on the type of light. The city has even discussed an "adopt a median" program, recruiting residents to trim the medians with their own lawnmowers.

"This city has really stepped up, and I'm proud of it," Paige says. "It's almost like we're moving to a do-it-yourself model."

But that's a concern for some, including Paige's fellow City Councilmember Jan Martin, who authored last fall's proposed tax increase that would have covered this year's shortfall and prevented the service cuts. "Right now, in this crisis, we've sort of lost the sense of the common good," she says. "There's a real sense of, 'I'll take care of mine. You take care of yours.'"

Look a few years down the road, she says, and the city's rich areas will prosper while the poorer sections of town will suffer. "The parts of the community that can't afford services will continue to deteriorate," Martin says. "And the neighborhoods that can afford to pay for street lights, parks, trash removal and medians will continue to prosper and be beautiful. I worry we're creating a city of haves and have-nots."

Budget Cuts and Public Safety Implications

For now, the outpouring of volunteer support has mitigated some of the most visible impacts of Colorado Springs' budget cuts. But there are bigger, longer-term issues, says Interim City Manager Steve Cox. "We get a lot of attention for the trash cans and the street lights, but that's just scratching the surface. There are deeper problems than that."

One of those problems is public safety. Everyone agrees that the police and fire departments should be last on the list of cuts. Still, those departments have had to reduce services as well. In addition to selling off helicopters, the police department has slashed its ranks, says Chief Richard Myers. Property detectives have been cut by one-third, and the department has completely wiped out some units, including its fugitive-investigation group. "We've eliminated entire street teams out of our regional drug unit. In 2011, we're significantly shrinking the number of school resource officers. Our specialty units are just imploding."

All in all, the department is down about 80 officers, from a high of 689 a few years ago. That's a significant cut, but what's worse is that the force already was stretched thin. "Most police departments in comparable cities would have 750, 800, maybe 900 police officers," Myers says. "Now we're down in the low 600s, and the city isn't shrinking." Even more challenging, Myers says, is that Colorado Springs covers such a large area of land. Geographically, the city is huge: Boston, Miami, Minneapolis and San Francisco could all fit within its borders.

With a dwindling number of cops serving a growing population across a vast tract of land, residents are feeling the cuts. Officers no longer can respond to as many incidents in person -- if someone breaks into a car or steals a kid's bike, the police just take the crime report over the phone. And it's unlikely they'll have the resources to follow up on it, Myers says. "We're struggling with the fact that so many people can be victimized by property crimes and have it treated more as an insurance report and a cursory tick mark on the tote board, rather than us helping them try to solve their crime."

Technology is a problem, too. The police department already was lagging in technology before the latest cuts. Investing in them now would be impossible. For example, Myers points to in-car video cameras, a tech upgrade he implemented at his previous two posts as police chief in other cities. "That's standard in police departments; it's a routine tool in law enforcement," he says. "We don't have a single one in a squad car here."

Despite all the reductions, Myers says he can't point to an uptick in crime. But he worries about the longer-term implications of a bare-bones force. Myers says he firmly believes that a proactive, decentralized style of policing, as it was proven in the 1990s, reduces crime, increases the public's confidence in the police and increases the collaborative kind of policing where citizens and police work together for long-term solutions. "And to now see us moving more and more and more to almost a completely reactive style of policing is just difficult for me to tolerate."

Still, he says he recognizes that tough times call for tough measures, and if this is the police department Colorado Springs is willing to pay for, so be it. "My mourning period is over, and the focus now is on redefining the new norm. We're past doing more with less," he says. "We're doing less with less."

A New Model of Government?

Colorado Springs' fiscal day of reckoning has arrived. But the reason other cities are watching the Springs is because what happens here isn't necessarily just an extreme experiment in do-it-yourself government -- it could be the future.

Thanks to the city's heavy reliance on sales taxes, the revenue crisis was brought to bear last year. In other municipalities, where revenues rely more on property taxes, the problems may only be beginning. "Cities are really going to be hard hit at least through 2011," says Christiana McFarland, director of finance and economic development programming for the National League of Cities (NLC). Because property taxes are based on periodic assessments, there's an 18-to-24-month lag before the city feels the full effect of the downturn. "We're anticipating property tax revenues will take a huge hit this coming year."

And cities already have been making cuts, according to NLC surveys. More than two-thirds have delayed investments in infrastructure or capital improvements. Another 22 percent have made cuts in public safety; 27 percent have reduced their spending in human services; and a full 71 percent have already been forced to make cuts in personnel. "With the budgets already cut down to the bone," McFarland says, "they're going to start digging into the marrow."

The big question is whether the cuts are part of a crunch-time crisis, or whether they represent a new era in smaller government. For her part, McFarland says she doesn't think the Colorado Springs model can be a long-term solution. "Cities need to get back to a basic level of delivering services, particularly in public safety."

Meanwhile in Colorado Springs, the crisis is spawning broader conversations about what citizens expect government to be. "It really brings you to some fundamental questions that elected representatives should be asking themselves," Martin says. "It forces you to prioritize and decide, what is the role of government? And what services should the city be providing?"

One thing seems certain in the Springs: The service cuts are here to stay. Thanks to TABOR, it could be years before the city is even able to return to 2009 spending levels. The pools may reopen and the medians may get mowed, but those services will likely be performed by the private sector. As public funds start to trickle back in -- and local sales tax revenues have been on the uptick so far this year -- they'll go toward rebuilding the police department and adding back some of the bus routes. And for many, that's just the way things should be. "I think we're plowing fertile new ground here," Paige says. "And I think we can make it work."

Zach Patton  |  Executive Editor
zpatton@governing.com  | 

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