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City Council's newest member sees stars after his first budget beatdown, and the prospect of deeper cuts

Bernie Herpin sounds crushed.

Like most newly chosen leaders, he came to office in April with goals and visions. The newest city councilor wanted to expand public safety, bring economic development to Academy Boulevard, help the disabled. But reality wasted no time smacking him in the face.

Last week, the city announced it expects a $23.7 million budget shortfall in 2010 — which might be optimistic. That means there isn't seed money for new projects, or even room to restore some of the services lost in the last budget cycle. Rather, more cuts are on the way.

"I'm at a loss," Herpin says. "If I had to sit down with a red pen with the budget and cut that much out of it, I don't know what I'd cut."

Frustration and apathy are running high as Council grapples with its rapidly shrinking budget, with some Councilors suggesting the city fund only public safety, or at least lop off a few departments.

At last week's meeting, a solemn Vice Mayor Larry Small noted that if voters aren't going to change tax policy to make city funding sustainable, it's probably pointless to chase ballot issues asking for one-time funds.

"We can sell our parks to developers," Small said. "We can depend on the [Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority] to maintain our streets."

Others seem more angry than resigned. Councilor Jerry Heimlicher is lashing out at libertarian activists and the Gazette's opinion writers, calling them "misfits" and "malcontents" eagerly ushering in a doomsday for the city.

"To me the saddest part of this thing is the legacy we're building, or not building, for the young people and the future of this city," Heimlicher says.

Council will likely reduce the 2010 budget gap by $9.1 million by again opting out of giving employees a raise.

Other decisions will be more difficult. The 2010 projection means all of 2009's proposed cuts are back on the table: reductions to police and fire, further axing of bus routes, closing community and senior centers. Several Council members say they expect parks and transit to take the biggest hits.

"My preference is just to reduce services on these departments," first-term Councilor Jan Martin says. "If you do away with these departments, chances are they'll never come back."

Martin, like many of her colleagues, is depressed by the ongoing cuts. She looks at the grass browning in parks and thinks to herself that if it all dies, the city will need between $10 million and $14 million to replace it.

Martin, Herpin and Heimlicher have been attending meetings with disabled residents dependent on paratransit bus services to get to jobs, doctors and grocery stores; she thinks about them when she thinks about slicing more bus services.

Hard as it is in a time of crisis, she says, it's time to look forward. This summer the Sustainable Funding Committee, the consultants behind the Operation 6035 study, and Dream City 2020 participants will give reports suggesting new directions for the city. It's a perfect time to decide what the city should be and how to make it so, she says.

Heimlicher agrees.

"We have to ask the public, 'What do you expect for what you pay?'" he says. "This isn't Target. You're not going to get more for less."

stanley@csindy.com

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