We've waited for weeks to hear what City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft will identify, based largely on department heads' recommendations, as the starting points for cutting $23.7 million more out of the 2010 budget.
On Monday, our City Councilors will find out how deep and painful the cuts will be to staff, services and facilities. And on Tuesday, they'll quickly have to decide how far to go in giving voters a chance to stop the city's financial hemorrhaging in the November election.
This time, the budget cuts will affect more people than ever before, no matter what their pet issues might be. We'll hear about the all-but-certain closing of community and senior centers, taking away activities and opportunities for so many people, young and old, to broaden their lives. We'll hear about abandoning dozens of city parks and programs, plus eliminating much residential snowplowing. We'll find out details of more severe cuts to bus service, impacting thousands who have no other affordable option for going to work, shopping for groceries or seeing a doctor.
Finally, we'll learn about projected personnel cuts for police and fire, undermining the city's very foundation of stability.
There's only one apparent escape route from the nightmare. City Councilor Jan Martin has proposed a property tax increase that would raise enough money to avoid all of those cuts. Others on Council, who support putting Martin's issue on the ballot but don't think it can pass, seem resigned to the city suffering through at least one horrible year, no matter how damaging it might be, in part because that would show the cynics once and for all that there aren't any other solutions.
We can only hope that doesn't happen. At least the Councilors (from all previous indications in recent meetings) will let the people make one choice: Should we raise property taxes (about $10 a month at first for a $200,000 home), or would we rather deal with the consequences?
Another factor is Douglas Bruce, who's still planning to submit enough petition signatures to put his latest measures on the ballot. The city has disqualified Bruce's issues from the November ballot because he didn't turn in petitions by a pre-set deadline. But he still could force a costly special election in December, and if he prevails, that likely would mean yet another $20 million-plus in additional cuts, which would effectively threaten to shut down our city government as we have known it — especially if Martin's tax measure fails.
We also don't know how much the TABOR ratchet-down effect could take away other revenues in 2010 and beyond. That's why City Council also must decide Tuesday whether to push an issue asking voters to do away with much of the local TABOR, aside from approving tax increases (see "Help prevent a TABOR train wreck," Editorial, p. 8).
Several on City Council have expressed concern that if they put too many issues on the November ballot, all of them might lose, possibly hampering the chances of anything passing next year. That's part of the reason Councilors have already shot down several proposals for this election. Councilor Jerry Heimlicher, for one, feels the city's best strategy is to start planning now for proposing a package of tax revisions in November 2010, when voters might be more amenable after a year of hard times.
Here's another idea: City Council could take a more aggressive approach and start making those 2010 cuts now, from police and fire to transportation and parks. Go ahead and begin closing the community centers, even the senior centers, at least one or two days a week if not totally. Cut more bus routes and eliminate fall sports programs. Start saving some money in case the sales tax revenues remain as anemic as they are, to avoid more rounds of cuts like last winter.
Give people a full taste of reality now, in the final months of this year, so they'll have a better idea of what's coming in January 2010. And then offer them the alternatives, Martin's property tax increase along with the TABOR revisions, on the November 2009 ballot.
If the voters still say no, then they won't have anyone else to blame when the nightmare arrives.