DENVER AND THE WEST

DENVER AND THE WEST

Colorado Springs cuts into services considered basic by many By Michael Booth

The Denver Post

POSTED: 01/31/2010 01:00:00 AM MST353 COMMENTS| UPDATED: 6 YEARS AGO

 

 

• Mar 4:

• Taxis to patrol, reinforcing thinning ranks of Springs police

• Jan 27: • Doug Bruce’s tenants circulated anti-tax petitions in Springs

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 mbooth@denverpost.com

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