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City picks its battles well 

Between the Lines

You don't see editors disagreeing with their publishers very often — at least not in print. Usually, we'll find a way to reach common ground on the big issues of the day.

But not this time.

Independent publisher John Weiss came up just short Tuesday in his effort to put an issue on the November ballot that would've amputated much of Colorado Springs' local version of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. John still thinks City Council was wrong: He believes his issue should have gone to the voters now, alongside a proposed property tax increase trying to avoid a financial disaster. He's convinced the two proposals would have created synergy.

That's the publisher's view. Not mine, as the executive editor writing this column.

John might be right. But in the end, by my estimation, it's simply not worth the gamble. Not with so much at stake, and with local tax-increase issues having lost twice in a row within the past nine months.

And especially not after the frightening 2010 budget news Monday, when City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft laid out the latest sobering facts. Everyone knew she would be dropping her budget bombshell. What nobody knew, aside from the nine members of Council, was that the bombshell would be so ... nuclear. Even having the numbers ahead of time didn't soften the blow for many councilors, who looked stricken.

Culbreth-Graft wasn't just throwing out guesses. She showed numbers with the cuts required to produce the $28 million in savings to balance the bottom line. She had a few ideas to help, but that only brought the shortage down to about $23 million. From there, it looked like this:

• Kill parks and rec's senior and community centers, parks and pools, and the majority of jobs (the equivalent of 126 full-time positions) — $9 million.

• Kill the city bus system — $6.1 million.

• Kill up to 35 firefighting positions — $3.2 million.

• Kill up to 25 police positions — $2.6 million.

That adds up to about $21 million, still $2 million short — the equivalent of a few furloughs, or perhaps a small across-the-board pay cut.

Anybody who saw Culbreth-Graft's report, her voice cracking at times along the way, could see her distress. But the blame for this budget crisis doesn't fall solely on TABOR, aside from how it steadily has eroded property-tax revenue. The problem also has been the city depending too much on sales taxes.

Let's be clear: TABOR has been, and is, terrible for our city. Worsened by the bad economy, it has contributed to the tailspin now on the threshold of irreparably damaging our quality of life. But we have a bigger problem right now than starting to fix TABOR. The city budget is a dire emergency.

It's no longer a matter of giving voters a variety of options and trusting their judgment. This mail-ballot vote has turned into an all-or-nothing referendum on what people want from local government. Approve that tax, or face those cuts.

It can't become any more complicated than that.

There will be another day, and another way, to fight the TABOR battle. That will still be the case even if Douglas Bruce's anti-city petition initiative makes it onto the November ballot instead of a special election. Actually, that special election would have been the perfect setting for including the TABOR reform question. Then, the grassroots campaign John promised, "just as we did for both TOPS issues," could have delivered a lethal blow to Bruce's political career.

The special election might not happen, but City Council still is smart to focus all of its attention in coming weeks on making its case for the property tax vs. budget cuts now, and opposing Bruce's issue, then dealing with TABOR later.

The publisher won't agree. He'll insist that the time was right to go after TABOR and the property-tax increase with one combined effort.

That's his view. But he doesn't pay me to agree with him on everything, just as he doesn't pay me to be a campaign manager. So I can praise his anti-TABOR motives, but I'm still convinced the city budget crisis has to come first.

Because if that property tax doesn't win, Colorado Springs is absolutely screwed — TABOR or no TABOR.

routon@csindy.com

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