At least once each week, in everyday conversations, someone with good awareness and knowledge of local government invariably surprises me with a painfully misguided point or question.
The latest one, from two people who aren't acquainted: Given the well-known budget problems and cutbacks, how can City Council spend $1 million on purchasing the Corral Bluffs property east of town to give us yet another park?
City Councilor Jerry Heimlicher has encountered the same sort of reaction. The other night in a supermarket checkout line, someone was ready to compliment Heimlicher for voting against Corral Bluffs, only to find he voted for it.
The explanation is simple: That money, buying more than 520 acres of unusual land with rare, underappreciated rock formations and scenery (not to mention the presence of historical artifacts), came from the Trails, Open Space and Parks sales tax approved by voters in 1997 and again in 2003. The city cannot use it to save jobs or programs in the annual budget.
"I had to tell this guy that even if we had $100 million in TOPS money, we wouldn't be able to spend it in any other way," Heimlicher says.
Just the fact that civic-minded people are not connecting those dots should be a warning signal to city leaders. They saved the Stormwater Enterprise and other major city operations by defeating Doug Bruce's Questions 200 and 201 in the Nov. 4 election, but most residents still don't understand local finances.
That delusion about Corral Bluffs was a classic example, but there are more. Such as these that have come my way in the past month or so:
How can the city spend so much on the Woodmen-Powers and Austin Bluffs-Union interchanges, but not have enough to pave streets or fix potholes? (For those bigger projects, the money came from voter-approved Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority funds.)
Why did City Council spend millions to help the U.S. Olympic Committee move downtown, but then has to cut 90 positions? (The city only has to pay a small percentage of its commitment to the USOC each year.)
What's going on when the city puts up with Memorial Hospital's misdeeds, but has to chop or eliminate good programs? (Again, different money in different budgets. Nothing can be diverted from the hospital to other city operations.)
Why does the city shell out millions for stormwater projects but can't do more for police and fire? (Same as above, with the Stormwater Enterprise collecting and spending its own money.)
What's the logic in adding a huge park at the same time existing parks' restrooms are being padlocked? (TOPS acquisition money cannot be spent for such purposes as keeping bathrooms open.)
As long as the city had no problems balancing its budget, it was fine for voters to commit additional tax money for other purposes. But in this bleak economy, with sales tax revenues down sharply and growth-related income at a standstill, the city can't raid TOPS or PPRTA, which are protected with good reason.
More fodder for the cynics is coming. As City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft looks for another $1.2 million to cut (because Council refused some of her ideas), work will begin on an outdoor skating facility at Memorial Park costing, yes, $1.2 million but funded mostly by donations and lottery money.
Also this week, Colorado Springs Utilities is asking for higher rates in 2009 because its coal prices will skyrocket next year. Already, water bills are going up an average of $11 a month. As a result, City Council is asking Utilities to cut its charitable donations as much as possible.
"There are lots of tails to this monster," Heimlicher says of the financial pinch, such as cutting bus routes because operational costs are rising so much. "But we wouldn't raise utility rates if we didn't have to. We aren't doing this just to be mean, or because we're stupid. We pay the same rates as everybody else."
As Heimlicher puts it, "Whenever we get the chance to explain things to people one-on-one, they almost always understand."
Trouble is, City Council has nine members, serving more than 400,000 residents. And probably 399,000 of them don't really understand. They're too busy trying to balance their own budgets.