Inside the sparsely furnished room at the City Administration Building, the handful of men and women who actually oversee Colorado Springs' city government took turns last Friday describing what they see as a looming catastrophe.
One by one, they explained to media what the next $25 million in budget cuts for 2010 would mean to their operations. The city manager, police chief, fire chief and directors of transportation and parks and recreation couldn't avoid using hyperbole in their presentations, because this is their worst nightmare. And many indicators suggest that not enough citizens are willing to stop it from becoming reality.
The irony of the setting was too powerful to ignore, because this wasn't just any room. This was the former City Council Chambers, where mayors from Larry Ochs and Bob Isaac to Mary Lou Makepeace presided through what many remember as the best of times for Colorado Springs, until Council returned in 2001 to its roots in the refurbished old City Hall two blocks up Nevada Avenue.
Now, the only evidence of the past is the old lighted "scoreboard" that recorded Council votes for many years, still affixed to the same wall behind what once was the dais. And you could almost hear Mayor Isaac's unforgettable, gravel-filled voice, grumbling in disgust as today's city supervisors talked about unraveling so much of the progress and inner workings that had made the Springs into a showpiece.
These weren't threats. They were reality: closing community centers, drastically cutting bus service, eliminating effective police programs and personnel, shutting down fire squads, abandoning 128 out of 141 city parks, shredding the parks and rec department from 180 people in 2008 down to 20 next year.
And yet, given those destructive consequences, cynics across the city are ignoring their last chance to avoid that fate.
Despite supporters' best efforts, Measure 2C, on the election ballot that should have reached your mailbox by now, is in serious danger of losing. Yes, 2C would increase property taxes — by about $2 a week in 2010, then about that much more in increments through 2015. That's about a bag of potato chips a week to save Colorado Springs from disaster.
And yet, across the city, misconceptions are rampant, undermining 2C's chances. So, with the hope that uncertain voters might want one last piece of input, here's another stab at those misconceptions:
The city spent itself into this crisis. No way. As the budget shrank in the past few years (sales-tax revenues went down), the city made many reductions, drained reserves and economized in countless ways. There's no more cushion.
City Council doesn't deserve the people's trust. Really? Many thousands of voters elected these same leaders. They aren't perfect, and we certainly have disagreed with them. Often. But they've always wanted the best for the city.
Why not use money from Utilities and Memorial Hospital to balance the city budget? This one is particularly bothersome, because so many citizens don't realize that those large enterprises, while owned by the city, are self-supporting separate entities from everyday government operations.
Then why not sell Utilities and/or the hospital? The market is not good for that either, and private ownership would charge area residents much more for their services.
The property tax is unfair because renters don't have to pay. Many of them will, assuming some rents will increase. But if the tax is $5 or $10 a month per unit, that's not unbearable.
Council is forcing 2C on the voters. Wrong. This was Councilor Jan Martin's last-hope alternative to the 2010 budget cuts, simply giving residents a choice. It was not some dark strategy.
All that money going to the Olympic Committee would solve the city's problems. Wrong again. That $40 million-plus to guarantee the USOC staying here for at least 30 years will be financed by bonds, costing the city about $1.8 million a year to save the Olympic presence and its economic impact.
These are all scare tactics. No, it's just the annual process of the city manager presenting next year's budget, with department heads explaining their portions to City Councilors, who then can make informed decisions. If you really think it won't be that bad, talk to the people whose only transportation is the bus, or whose kids won't have community centers or parks anymore.
And if you still plan to vote against 2C, as the city crumbles around us all, you'll have nobody else to blame.