Outside the Antlers Hilton ballroom, nearly 200 local officials, employees, business leaders and civic supporters waited Tuesday for the start of an event with an unavoidably gloomy title: State of the Region.
Most conversations among that crowd were somber. As one person put it, "We know how things are. I want to hear what might be coming next good or bad."
Others heard that comment and nodded. So many of these city and county updates turn into whitewashes, with everyone patting each other on the back and saying for the millionth time how lucky we are to live here. Surely, with so much financial turmoil at every level of government, this event would be different.
Unfortunately, no, it wasn't.
Commissioner Dennis Hisey, by virtue of being the county board's chairman, delivered the main speech. Hisey's a knowledgeable, easygoing, well-spoken guy, with the security of having just been elected to his second four-year term. This event provided the perfect opportunity for a realistic, straight-talk assessment of how the county might find its way through these difficult times.
Instead, Hisey took the easy, diplomatic route, with such thoughts as this: "We all need to remind ourselves that economic downturns, like economic booms, don't last forever." And the day's unofficial mantra came shining through: Let's all work together, this storm will pass, we won't be victims forever, and life will be better again on the other side.
Nothing about lessons learned from overly optimistic budget expectations, from perhaps reacting too slowly to the deteriorating local economy, or from counting too much on the County Question 1A sales tax proposal in the November election.
Nothing addressing the most common questions floating through the audience, such as: How close is the county to the bottom, in terms of budget-related cuts? Will even more jobs and services vanish in the days ahead? Is anybody working on possible stopgap solutions to avoid closing Pikes Peak Mental Health's detox center, the county's only such facility? How about any new ideas for how to combine forces with the city and share more services related to health and safety?
To Hisey's credit, he never mentioned Doug Bruce, government's No. 1 enemy. But Hisey did make sure to point out that El Paso County spends 38 percent less per person than any other county in Colorado, not exactly a badge of honor (Bruce and others would disagree, of course). Hisey also mentioned that the Department of Human Services issued $5 million in food stamps just in November, almost 50 percent more than the $3.4 million of a year ago.
But despite so many more county residents facing hard times, Hisey spent exactly six words on "reduced or eliminated health department services," which he could have singled out as a potentially grim emergency (see "Unprotected," the cover story) after so many years of cuts.
The failure of 1A worsened that situation, but Hisey smartly didn't slam 1A's opponents; instead, he said "the voters didn't like it and communicated that very effectively." But he also offered nothing about what might come next.
Perhaps a scaled-down version of 1A, more palatable to those who opposed it? As soon as November 2009? Shouldn't we be talking about the options, even now? Wouldn't this luncheon have been a good time to rally the forces by announcing tentative plans for the possible next steps?
Instead, one of the day's most foreboding lines slipped by without reaction. Hisey said health and safety needs "cannot be ignored as we strive to maintain the quality of life that brought so many of us here in the first place."
Quality of life. Colorado Springs has cherished it for decades, and justifiably so. Yet the one message nobody would say Tuesday, but somebody should have been shouting, is this:
We're losing that quality of life. We're letting it slip away, faster than anybody seems to realize. And if we allow this feeling of "the best government is the cheapest government with the fewest possible services" continue much longer, Colorado Springs and El Paso County will never be able to recover.
That's the "State of the Region" from this view. It's terrible. It's worsening by the day. No matter what anybody says, life might not be so good "on the other side."
And the time to do something about it is now. Before it's too late.