The date: Sunday, Oct. 9, 9:40 p.m. The place: Colorado Springs Airport. The terminal is all but deserted. The monitors are blank — no more departing flights. Every shop is closed, every airline counter shut down. It's the airport that time forgot, a perfect set for a yet-to-be conceived Pete Schuermann zombie movie.
Yet suddenly a familiar voice shatters the sepulchral silence.
"This is Mayor Steve Bach," the loudspeaker squawks. "Whether you're a visitor, or returning home, we're glad you're here."
Nice sentiments, to be sure. But somehow the sleepy terminal and the mayor's recorded voice brought back memories of the 1990s — the most contentious, creative, controversial and successful decade in the city's history.
City voters, never predictable, approved Douglas Bruce's measures in 1991 to phase out a capital improvements tax and restrict future taxes and spending. In April 1992, they approved $100-plus million in airport revenue bonds to build a new terminal, and followed up that November by passing Bruce's statewide Taxpayer's Bill of Rights initiative just as emphatically. Absent that margin, TABOR would've failed statewide, as would have 1992's Amendment 2, a clever attempt to deprive gays and lesbians of basic civil rights. Then in 1997, a sales tax enabling the city to acquire and protect thousands of acres of open space, passed easily.
Those were interesting times, to say the least. Our city was both ardently progressive and deeply conservative — Ground Zero for the religious right and the nationwide tax limitation movement. A local organization, Colorado for Family Values, conceived and created Amendment 2, while Jim Dobson's Focus on the Family rose to national prominence.
It's fun to remember the fights, alliances, successes and defeats. We were all reluctant partners in building that shining city on the hill. The issue was not whether the city would grow and prosper, but how. Would sprawl and traffic choke us? Would taxes crush us? Would the liberals/conservatives/religious crazies/anti-growth fanatics/ruthless developers/tree-hugging enviros/half-witted politicians (check as many as you want!) screw things up?
Many fights were about nothing. The economy was booming; jobs were plentiful. We were like fat, happy kids rolling in the mud, quarreling over billboards, RV parking in neighborhoods, and how to accommodate the 100,000 newcomers who would live in Banning Lewis Ranch by 2011.
Now look at us — broke, bedraggled and stagnant. We need a vibrant economy, more jobs and a city worth fighting for. We're hoping Mayor Bach's "Spirit of the Springs" cheerleading will help pull us out of the doldrums.
Yet Bach's leadership dilemmas are strangely similar to President Barack Obama's, and may prove just as intractable.
Obama tried to reform health care — and made everyone mad. He tried to prevent a deeper recession — and made everyone mad. He tried to reduce deficits, create jobs, get out of foreign entanglements, placate his enemies, and please his friends — and made them all mad. He tried to work with a fractious Congress, a demoralized federal bureaucracy, and self-serving special interest groups — and so far they've eaten him alive.
Just as Obama ran roughshod over Republicans until the 2010 elections, Bach has shown no respect for our Rodney Dangerfield City Council. That's a mistake. He'll have to work with them, since they control Memorial and Utilities. If they so choose, Council can throw ratepayers a bone by refusing to transfer $30 million in Utilities "surplus profits" to the city, which would wreak havoc on Bach's budget. Meanwhile, public safety could become the mayor's own private Afghanistan — there's not enough money in the budget to hire cops, let alone maintain parks and fill potholes.
We didn't expect much from Obama, given the disasters that he inherited. Get the economy back on track, wind down the wars, do something about health care, reduce the deficit ... was that too much? And we don't expect much from Bach, given the disasters he inherited. Revive the economy, cut city spending, fix Memorial, curb rising utility rates, restore city services, and don't even think about raising taxes ... is that too much?
Maybe so — but if Mayor Bach wants a quiet, beautiful environment where he can meditate upon the affairs of state, he knows where to go.