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Who's in charge here? 

Throughout the past eight months, one message has come through repeatedly in conversations with members of the Colorado Springs City Council.

They really like their still-new city manager, Penny Culbreth-Graft. They like her engaging personality, her low-key style, her willingness to work with others and her excellent organizational skills.

But in the past month, the city once again has fallen short of budgeted revenues, darkening the outlook for 2009, with cuts estimated as high as $23 million.

The task for Culbreth-Graft is substantial, if not foreboding. The time has come to wave a magic wand over the city's developing budget, hopefully making the inevitable cuts hurt as little as possible.

Trouble is, the city's leaders are so used to micromanaging, it's hard for them to let go. So when Culbreth-Graft came to them recently with suggested cuts and possible new revenue sources, too many on City Council shot down ideas without giving them a chance to develop. Some examples:

Charging a nominal fee for cars entering Garden of the Gods and the Red Rock Canyon parking lot.

Cutting out an antiquated fee paid to businesses for collecting the city sales tax.

Adding a surcharge to car registrations for city residents.

There were more, and at least one (a fee increase for youth, senior, disabled and community-center programs) probably deserved to be gonged. But Culbreth-Graft's ideas provided the best way to minimize the pain. And before you knee-jerk and pass judgment, consider the details.

What's so sacrilegious about Garden of the Gods and Red Rock Canyon as revenue sources? The fees wouldn't have to be astronomical, and they could be weighted. Locals might pay $1 to drive through Garden of the Gods, while non-residents could pay $5.

Same for Red Rock Canyon. No charge for anyone on bicycles or walking, but cars could pay to enter and park. Locals could even fork over $10 or so for a sticker that would allow unlimited use of both areas for a year.

The city manager estimated park-access charges could produce $440,000 annually, but in truth that number could be much higher.

The "vendor fee" paid to businesses for their role in sales-tax collection really adds up only for larger retailers (Wal-Mart, Target and the like), and removing it would not hurt small businesses as some might think. But it would save the city nearly $2.5 million a year, more in a stronger economy. Council agreed to limit the amount businesses could receive, but wouldn't eliminate the fee.

As for car registrations, it's not as if adding $10 to $15 for every registration would force people to sell or abandon vehicles. There was no estimate provided with this suggestion, but it's safe to say it could produce a few million annually.

To be clear, Culbreth-Graft isn't complaining. She tells us she appreciates City Council's direction, and she was encouraged that a few of her ideas (such as adding investigators to make sure all businesses are passing along the correct amount of sales tax) were approved. Councilors also tell us they were happy she came to them early in the process. But she also knows finding other cuts or revenue sources will be tougher now.

As Culbreth-Graft said this week, "They'll have to weigh the desire to continue services with the desire not to burden anyone any further for service dollars."

In the meantime, Council is narrowing the city manager's options. Perhaps some members of Council need to remember why they hired Culbreth-Graft, an outsider with much experience and fresh ideas that have worked elsewhere.

Here's an idea: Let the city manager have her way. Give her a much longer leash to plan the next city budget. Then, since the city leaders are politicians, they can freely take credit for supporting her if all goes well and they don't have to share as much blame for any problems.

If Penny Culbreth-Graft is as visionary as we've been told, and gets the leeway she had during her successful years in California, she might make Colorado Springs, and City Council, look much better than anyone might expect.

But only if she's given the chance.

routon@csindy.com

  • Council needs to give city manager more space to do the job.

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