Question: What is composed -- in roughly equal proportions -- of illusion, delusion, necessity and politics? If you guessed our Iraq policy, that's not bad, but I had the city budget in mind.
It's always fun to listen to the fulminations of folks who try to analyze that big fat oinkin' document. The preferred technique is to pick out a line item or two (page 6-19: why is the finance department allocating $3,530 to dues and memberships? Outrageous!) that, stripped of context, seem ridiculous. Pile on a few more absurdities, and -- presto! -- you've proven that the city is feckless, irresponsible and just plain dumb.
If you want to understand the budget, don't listen to the words; listen to the music. The devil is not in the details. He's in the underlying assumptions that create the document itself.
So let's look at that tedious collection of numbers as a coherent, if dissonant, orchestral work.
1st Movement: Necessity
State and restate the opening theme -- we've got to have cops and firefighters. We've got to maintain the roads, and build new ones. We've got to fund the Municipal Court, not to mention myriad city departments, from finance to planning, from public relations to facilities management. Necessity -- it's the Godzilla of city budgeting, an insatiable beast that has grown to unmanageable proportions!! And how can we slay it? Only one weapon can pierce its heart, one that all of us must join to forge!!! And that is ... New Taxes! (The movement ends with an ominous drum roll.)
2nd Movement: Politics
The leitmotif of politics, which lurked behind the stately cadences of Necessity, is now dominant. We turn to page 16-5, where we find that the so-called Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is simply the visitor industry's trade association, gets a nice fat $2,129,837 in tax money. And why is that? Well, it's because they've always gotten it, and there are an awful lot of voters who toil in that industry, and no pol is about to mess with them. Does it make any sense? Only to the extent that giving $2 million to, say, the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors, would make sense. After all, realtors provide an essential service to the community. Shouldn't they get tax money? Don't they need a trade association? What? They already have one, and it's self-funded by the realtors themselves, and they don't need any government handouts? Never mind.
And speaking of voters, let's look on page 3-18 at the $6.6 million that the city has allocated to employee wage and benefit increases. Forget the verbiage; these folks vote! No one can be elected to City Council without swearing eternal fealty to city employees. This is the time of year for tendentious speechifying by our elected leaders: "O, the hardworking, underappreciated city employees!! How we love you! How we appreciate you! And next April, when you pick up your slightly fatter check, don't forget to vote ..."
3rd Movement: Illusion
Shimmering and elusive, yet soothing, a musical anodyne for all of our ills. Do we fear crime, admire police and firefighters, crave safety and security? Then we'll support massive funding for public safety -- try $127 million. Do we want vital services for free? Let's make Utilities pay for powering the streetlights. Money for nuthin' -- just a few more pennies on your utility bill. But times are tough -- tax collections are flat to down. So let's prove how thrifty we are by tossing city funding for the arts into the dumpster. Yep, we're a world-class city all right -- unlike Denver, which is spending $66 million on a new wing for the Denver Art Museum. What a waste -- who needs it??!!
4th Movement: Delusion
Slow and sonorous. Everything's fine -- ignore any dissonance, forget the minor keys. Don't worry about paying for court-mandated improvements to the Pikes Peak Highway -- we'll just borrow a million bucks from the state (or the feds)! And let's see ... people are traveling less, the economy's in a tailspin, and the airlines are broke -- so let's budget a $1.5 million increase in airport revenue! Just relax and, as Greyhound used to say, leave the driving to us ...
OK, so the budget is imperfect. So what? It's big, sprawling and complicated -- the product of messy compromise and hard necessity, with rewards for the powerful and a kick in the butt for the powerless. You don't like it? Move to Denver -- you pay slightly higher taxes, and all you get are parks, museums, professional sports, light rail, new highways and a buncha damn Democrats.
And you can bet they don't know how to read a budget.