For two days and more than 14 excruciating hours this week, Colorado Springs City Council tried desperately to elevate its thinking, ideals, eloquence and boldness to a much higher level.
Through treacherous discussions and debates, the nine elected leaders did their best some showing more guts than others to determine the optimal strategies for dealing with the city's budget mess and to decide what to put on the April municipal election ballot.
They came close, so close, to tossing aside their caution and displaying some audacious group leadership. Several showed they really understand the extent of Colorado Springs' dangerous quandary.
It was fascinating to watch, as they vacillated between wanting to take chances and not wanting to deal with the possible consequences.
In the end, sadly, most councilors couldn't take that jump off the cliff of political stability. They opted instead for quick fixes and small bandages.
Vice Mayor Larry Small showed the most fortitude, pitching a modest but brazen property-tax increase that could have begun changing the city's ways while also producing $9 million a year in new revenue. It wouldn't have balanced the budget, but it was the right kind of assertive action and definitely a tough sell, with only seven weeks until ballots are mailed. In the face of deeper budget cuts, and with many residents seeing their quality of life threatened, Small's spontaneous proposal had many on Council showing more than curious interest.
That was Monday, amid the agonizing heartburn of the budget dilemma. But by Tuesday night, when ballot issues had to be decided, the cold feet had the majority.
Not that Small's concept was perfect. It wasn't. For some reason, most felt compelled to earmark more money for economic development, following the city sustainability committee's recommendation made in a totally different context, before the $16.8 million budget shortage came to light.
Finally, Councilor Margaret Radford made the point that apparently eluded everyone else. How misguided is it, Radford asked, to talk about asking voters for money to look for more jobs at the same time the city has just cut nearly 100, and likely will have to eliminate many more? Why not worry about putting all new revenue into "essential city services" first?
Nobody else got it. They had different priorities. And there will be pressure on all concerned, if that measure passes, to spend the jobs money wisely.
In truth, when the time came Tuesday for everyone to weigh in, the councilors' speeches demonstrated how sincerely engaged everyone was.
There was Small, admirably imploring the group to show more leadership. Jan Martin, concerned about people thinking one ballot issue would fix everything. Tom Gallagher, saying, "We've gotta do business differently." Randy Purvis, fearing a negative outcome for anything on the April ballot. Scott Hente and Jerry Heimlicher, defending the need to pursue economic development now more than ever. Darryl Glenn, suggesting the best idea was to wait until November, taking more time to sway voters. Radford, who saw the city staff cuts as affecting real humans. And Mayor Lionel Rivera, arguing, "We don't need another silo" referring to ballot issues that create revenue for limited sources while the overall budget suffers.
So many different thoughts, with no obvious right or wrong. So the end result was like treading water. For April, we'll have one ballot issue producing money to pursue new jobs, another diverting $1.2 million of TABOR-strangled revenue into salvaging city services for now, and a stab at sharing some Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) money for helping maintain all city parks.
But Small, the guy with the most guts, shouldn't give up. He should try again for November. And who knows, if the national mood is more positive by late summer, when decisions have to be made, perhaps the city can try to convince everyone that paying a little more in property tax would help ensure the basic services and public safety that everybody seems to want.
It won't be easy. But it would be worth the try.
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