Something tells me the peace inside the Colorado Springs city government is about to end. Soon, as in perhaps the next few weeks.
It's coming up on budget time. Except this won't be like budgets of the past generation. Not at all. This will be when the city's new strong-mayor government differs from what we've seen in the past. Instead of city staff bringing an initial budget to the City Council, Mayor Steve Bach will present his proposal to the nine Councilors.
But not in a regular meeting, open to constituents and televised on the city's cable channel. Bach is starting the process in a different way. He's pitching his budget privately, to two councilors at a time, at his office.
The mayor admits he's sidestepping laws about open meetings, which allow sub-groups of an elected body, such as city councils, to meet privately as long as no more than two members are present. In a phone call, Bach defends his decision to change from the past practice of staff presenting the budget at an informal Council meeting, saying he wants honest input.
"I just thought we could have much better dialogue to do it this way, roll up our sleeves together and get everyone's perspective," he says.
Bach adds that most businesses would do that with budgeting. Sorry, Mr. Mayor, but it still doesn't smell right for the city.
We've known all along that this will not resemble other years. And we've understood that the new form of government would mean many changes.
But we've also thought that, by now, Bach would share his thoughts about specific directions. All we know so far has come to light indirectly. Last week, he sent an e-mail (from his personal account) to political and personal acquaintances, laying out a bleak forecast of the city's financial health.
Compiling input from staff, a certified public accountant and the "City Committee" of volunteer business leaders, Bach has determined — and made it known in this unusual way — that if current projections hold true, the city's expenditures will surpass its revenues by 2014. In other words, unless sales and use taxes make a strong positive bounce soon, the city once again will be looking at budget cuts in personnel and services, just as happened during the troubled times of 2007 through 2009.
Bach could have let all his constituents, along with City Council, know that bad news first. Not limited recipients of an e-mail, though he encouraged them to share it with others. It begins with Bach saying he wants "to share with you an early personal observation of great importance to our City."
Great importance, but not for Council or public consumption?
He goes on to talk about the projections, adding that "our reserves will be depleted or worse we'll have substantial negative cash flow, and we'll be faced with further reductions in services and/or painful [human resources] decisions."
As the mayor knows, that part about negative cash flow actually can't happen. The city has to balance its budget each year. As we have seen, when revenues fall short, cuts are made — even in midyear.
Bach apparently wants to avoid that, and he begins to hint at his possible strategy. He suggests the approach of working on one year at a time should change "to look at the longer term — the risks and opportunities before us — and shape our operating plan to be fiscally sustainable while delivering consistent, quality core functions and retaining valued employees."
The mayor admits that with this approach, he wouldn't be able to factor in any added staff or services, or money toward the $1 billion-plus in needed but postponed infrastructure updates. Nor would he guess at the potential impact of federal military budget cuts or another recession. He ends by saying the city must "move to priorities-based budgeting" and more long-range planning.
Bottom line: Bach wants new prosperity, more jobs, more economic development and less dependence on the military. But how to pay for all that without more, ahem, taxes?
My guess is, we're about to start hearing the mayor's specific ideas for how to achieve new prosperity with more austerity.
But please, Mayor Bach, not by e-mail. And not by meeting with two Councilors at a time.
Tell everyone what you'd like to do. We're ready to listen.
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