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Bleeding the budget 

To patch a $23 million gap, city manager proposes some drastic cuts for 2009

You wont see much repaving of city streets in the next year. - CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS

City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft's baby has arrived. And, boy, it was a painful delivery.

The first-year city manager's proposed 2009 city budget patches a $23 million shortfall while attempting to match expenditures with revenues. If City Council approves, the budget will slash at least 90 city positions, cut 13 percent of bus service, reduce park maintenance and programs, and eliminate almost all city funding for street resurfacing.

The general fund budget, heavily reliant on sales tax revenues that have dwindled in a stagnant economy, is $237,753,430 not even 1 percent larger than the original 2008 budget. It assumes sales and use tax revenues will be the same as in 2008; the outlook could darken if consumers spend less next year or if voters say yes to City Questions 200 and 201, which would drain the city of money to and from its enterprises. El Paso County also might keep the $2.2 million it normally shares with local governments for roads and bridges.

Culbreth-Graft's plan also sets aside a smaller percentage of savings than in past years. Council has long tried (but has failed in recent years) to maintain a fund balance at 10 percent of the general fund budget, and Culbreth-Graft's 2009 plan would set aside 7.8 percent, a number that likely will lower as settlements and other liabilities are paid out.

"I would rate this as the most challenging budget for me," says budget director Lisa Bigelow, a veteran of 14 years.

Citizens, too, may find the budget challenging. Council will be discussing it through Nov. 5, and will hear the public's input on Oct. 30. Here are a few places to look for blood.

Bus service

If Council approves, riders will have 23,000 fewer hours of bus service in 2009. Sherre Ritenour, city transit manager, says when possible, she's trimmed overlapping routes, made routes more efficient, or left fixed routes while cutting less-popular express routes.

The changes could mean eliminating all express routes, some low-performing night routes, the route to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and other service for school children. Service could be cut on five holidays. Route No. 24 could stop at Peterson Air Force Base's west gate, rather than proceeding through it. Other routes could be altered.

"Will there be adverse impacts on some people?" Ritenour asks. "I would imagine yes."

But Ritenour says her team labored to have the least impact on riders, including disabled riders who rely on paratransit, which will see few cuts.

Meanwhile, transit is putting millions in federal grants "on ice," hoping that in future years, with a better economy, the city will be able to provide the local match to buy new buses and other equipment. If the economy sinks further, transit may face even more cuts in 2010.

"I'm trying not to think about next year, because I think I'm an optimist," Ritenour says. "I'm hopeful."

Parks

If you live next to a park, the grass won't be so green on the other side of the fence next year.

With about $1.6 million less for maintenance, Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services' Kurt Schroeder plans less watering and fertilizer; less paint and herbicides; fewer irrigation parts; no seasonal help to mow and clean; fewer restrooms open, even in summer.

Asked what that means for kids, he says, "The park that they're playing in may not be in the same condition."

In addition, the city no longer will pay contractors around $200,000 to perform preventive tree maintenance. In the past, the program pruned about 3,100 trees a year. That helped keep the city's 125,000 trees, which line roadways and fill parks, healthy and less likely to drop weak limbs on your car.

With the program gone, parks director Paul Butcher says, city staffers will spend more time responding to emergencies like fallen trees blocking roadways or removing trees with diseases.

Also, various recreation programs for children, elderly, military families and people with developmental disabilities are being trimmed. If your kids enjoy programs like Preschool Building Blocks, Camp Deerfield or Summer Blast, enroll them early because space will be more limited. If you're a military spouse who liked the Parks/YMCA program that allowed you to exercise while your kids attended day care, sorry. That program is slated for elimination.

Expect fewer hours and programs at Garden of the Gods, North Cheyenne Cañon and Rock Ledge Ranch. The facility at Helen Hunt Falls will close. And there's no money for the July 4 symphony at Memorial Park.

Streets

Hoping the city will resurface your rutted street? Well, the proposed budget will cut nearly all resurfacing money, reducing last year's budget of around $4.5 million to only about $450,000.

The Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority probably won't pick up the slack. While its budget won't be approved for quite a while, the city has asked PPRTA for what streets manager Saleem Khattak describes as PPRTA's average yearly funding for streets resurfacing about $6.5 million.

So, with no other entity contributing extra cash, drivers can expect to see $4 million less in pavement improvements next year. And the money allocated to repaving won't go nearly as far, as asphalt prices have skyrocketed.

"We will continue to do the best we can with the resources we have," Khattak says.

stanley@csindy.com

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