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Budget blowback 

A $28 million deficit leads City Council to limit ballot issues and leave TABOR alone — for now

Less than a week ago, City Council thought its most pressing matter was deciding how many options to offer voters on November's ballot.

Then came an unexpected group e-mail Sunday night. City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft, before presenting her 2010 budget preview to Council on Monday, sent the nine elected leaders a summary: The projected budget shortfall had effectively doubled, from $14 million to a paralyzing $28 million.

After Culbreth-Graft publicly delivered the bad news Monday, repeatedly saying, "There are no good alternatives," Councilors saw a better-defined picture, and a different question: Given the severity of their need for cash, only weeks to campaign and high-volume opposition, should they be more selective in choosing their ballot battles?

They slept on the foreboding news, came back Tuesday and officially committed to a single challenge: asking voters for a property tax increase, roughly 35 cents a day in 2010 for a typical home in Colorado Springs, as initially proposed by Councilwoman Jan Martin.

If voters approve it, the proposal would likely keep Council from having to shut down the city's bus system, community and senior centers, parks and pools, the Pioneers Museum and Sertich Ice Center, not to mention eliminate up to 60 police and fire personnel — perhaps more than 200 total positions across city government. (See springsgov.com for the detailed budget update and 2010 outlook.)

Martin said her measure "is not a fix-all, but it does take care of the 2010 budget, and it gives the community an option." The third-year councilor also switched her position from a day earlier on another front, joining a 6-3 majority deciding against adding a Council-sponsored issue, promoted by Independent publisher John Weiss, that would have asked voters to repeal most of the city version of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

"This is the most difficult vote I've had to make," Martin said before making her change known.

Councilman Jerry Heimlicher made his own switch, embracing Martin's measure after learning how serious the budget troubles were.

"For those who say we're raising taxes, we're actually just giving people an option," Heimlicher said. "This is a serious financial crisis, and now the public will make the decision, not the City Council. The people have to say yes or no, and then we'll go from there.

"These aren't scare tactics, but they're scary."

The strategy was complicated by the specter of a counter-campaign from Douglas Bruce, who attended Council's formal meeting Tuesday and unleashed a series of verbal attacks. Bruce turned in petitions Tuesday for his own ballot issue, aimed at ending payments to city enterprises such as the Stormwater fee. He demanded it be allowed on the November ballot, trumpeting a promise from County Clerk Bob Balink to help certify petition signatures if needed and asked.

Bruce might get his way. Mayor Lionel Rivera polled Council late Tuesday and heard 6-3 support for the city to proceed with certifying Bruce's signatures and allowing his issue onto the ballot, mainly to avoid holding a special election at a time when city finances are so limited.

That matter will come up formally as an agenda item at a special Council meeting at 1 p.m. Friday, Aug. 28. The meeting had already had been scheduled to deal with issuing certificates of participation for the U.S. Olympic Committee retention deal.

routon@csindy.com

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