Friday, October 28, 2011

UPDATE: Councilors skip annual citizens' meeting

Posted By on Fri, Oct 28, 2011 at 12:04 PM

City Councilor Tim Leigh has had more to say about his absence from the e-town hall.

Leigh sent out a mass e-mail yesterday, explaining his skipping of the citizens' meeting. Long story short: He's still not sorry he missed it. Not even a little bit.

Read on:

Pay attention. Be informed. Make a difference. Keep it real.

I wasn’t at the Citizen’s Town Hall meeting last week. I was in the city that never sleeps doing the Citizen’s business.

The Citizen’s Town Hall meeting is a special contrivance where citizens plead their case before Council as it relates to the forthcoming budget. Frankly, by this time in the municipal budgeting process, any changes brought by special pleading by special interests are likely borne from emotion and not empiricism, and should be discounted on their face.

I actually thought about placing a mannequin or an orange cone (with my face painted with a moustache on it) in my chair so folks would know how much I was thinking about them while I was traveling; and I was, and I do care. I just think it’s horribly disingenuous and hypocritical to let the citizenry believe they can make last minute pitches and pleas and thereby modify a Quarter of Billion Dollar budget that took a team of professional accountants and budget planners nearly a year to create. And, while I appeared MIA, those who know me know I’m available and approachable for frank conversation anytime. I just believe that special meetings for special-interest groups while politically correct and appealing, (and good for ratings), are mostly non-productive. Alternatively, my time and our trip to the Big Apple was very productive.

And, we could beat the proposed budget to death because we all have good ideas. But, at some point we have to let it go. But, so I may stay in touch with my politically correct old self, here’s my quick two cents:

POOLS: Instead of subsidizing swimming pools, we should close them and purchase everyone who uses a public pool a free YMCA membership. We’d eliminate operational and capital costs associated with owning a public pool system and save hundreds of thousands every year. As it is, our pools can’t carry their own water.

CONTRIBUTIONS: Let’s cut contribution to the Colorado Municipal League (and other such membership organizations) by half and eliminate the Intergovernmental Affairs Liaison position. Our combined savings would be around $100,000. If we simply direct those savings to Parks, we’d re-open the Prospect Lake Beach House and re-fill Prospect Lake every spring.

ADMINISTRATION OF GOVERNMENT: Let’s move the Councilor’s offices to the City Administration Building producing operational efficiencies and financial savings while coincidentally solving personal safety concerns. Heck, if we played in the same sandbox, we might actually play together.

TOWN HALL MEETINGS: Citizens should talk to their elected officials more than once a year at a one-time, 2 hour meeting. To that end, we should hold regular monthly town hall meetings. These meetings could be very informal over coffee or wine and could provide a venue for citizens to showcase their programs and help drive public policy throughout the year - not just in a panic at budget time.

COUNCILOR’S SALARIES: For every dollar a councilor can find in savings to the budget by optimization he can keep ½. I’m sure I just found a couple of hundred thousand dollars with my ideas. . . .

I know my ideas will not be seriously considered, nor should they be. They are “off-the-cuff” as are many of the ideas brought forward in the town hall meeting where emotion and spur of the moment thinking reigns supreme. We need to discuss our “budget process” and the role of council in that process. We don’t need 9 city managers.

And so, while most of my co-councilors were at the Town Hall, I traveled with our utilities company (CSU) to the JP Morgan Utility Conference in New York City with a large goal of reducing borrowing costs and an alternative, nominal goal of finding 6 ounces of the fabled Pace Picante Sauce made famous in 1970’s cowboy commercials.

Utility companies from all over North America gathered at the JP Morgan Tower to pitch their bond issues to institutional investors. (Institutional investors are insurance companies and very large banks who buy municipal bonds.) By purchasing municipal bonds, institutional investors fund large-scale capital projects (like SDS, roads, bridges and sporting event centers) for cities. We were able to meet several investors privately and thereby place a name with a face with a person who writes a check.

The value of those meetings was enormous. Our personal selling and messaging (that we’re fiscally responsible and politically aligned — (OK - a salesman’s fib for our collective benefit!)) could produce a 3 — 5 basis point (.03% .05%) reduction in our long-term borrowing costs. If we borrow $250 million next year our trip could produce somewhere around a $1 - $1½ million borrowing-cost saving over time. That’s a real money savings to the rate payers (er, that’s us, folks!) By the way, I was the only elected official at the entire conference, and that I was there, (we were told) made a huge statement to the investors.

And now, in the grand old tradition of Halloween, campfires, the Grimm Brothers and Aesop, I’ll recant a simple municipal government horror story that we heard at the conference, with a lesson.

First the story: “Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love ain’t feeling the love!” The last good thing to come-out of Philadelphia (besides the Flyers) was Rocky. Over 30% of their residents live below the poverty line which means they don’t have the ability to borrow except at very high cost. (By the way, they are similarly sized to Colorado Springs and statistically 150,000 of their 500,000 citizens are broke.) When a city can’t afford to borrow it can’t make public improvements. When it can’t make public improvements, it can’t attract new citizens or businesses. When it can’t attract new citizens or businesses their population grows in the wrong direction. Their sale and property tax collections drop along with their quality of life. Think of the swirling sight and sound of a flushing toilet or think of Harrisburg PA, who filed for bankruptcy last week, or think of Vallejo, CA who filed in 2008.

Now the lesson: We need to be very aware of our demographic modeling which ultimately drives municipal finances and budgets. And, while we need to be fiscally conservative, we need to be willing to invest in ourselves so we continuously enhance the culture in Colorado Springs, naturally attracting a well trained and educated young, creative class. As we attract young creatives, we’ll attract employers who want to hire them and our budget conversations won’t center on continuous cuts, but will center on interesting projects that will preserve our way of living for our children and our children’s children.

Folks, budget conversations aren’t about budgets - they’re about policy. Policy conversations should not be conducted in short-term, emotionally charged, 2 hour long-meetings. They should be engaged over time so all possible points of view can be properly considered. By the time we get to implementation, larger policy considerations should have driven the conversation so the budget is a simple vote of unanimity. City Councilor’s should not sharp-shoot a budget line-by-line. City Councilor’s should be thinking great thoughts, dreaming big dreams and articulating vision.

Now, would somebody please pass the Picante Sauce?

Pay attention. Be informed. Make a difference. Keep it real.

——- ORIGINAL POST, FRIDAY, 12:04 P.M. ——-

Tim Leigh
  • Tim Leigh
Last night's annual "e-town hall" on the city budget didn't attract quite as many citizens as past years, but concerned community members still packed the room.

The dais, however, was less packed. At the start of the meeting, three councilors were absent. Lisa Czelatdko showed up a little late, missing the comments of three members of the public, but catching the vast majority of the meeting. Councilors Tim Leigh and Merv Bennett, however, never showed.

This reporter has been covering this annual meeting — citizens' chance to tell Councilors how they want their tax dollars spent — since 2007. Never has a single Councilor missed it.

After the meeting, Council President Scott Hente told me that Bennett was absent because of a long-held commitment to care for an out-of-state loved one following a surgery. Leigh, however, was in New York City, meeting with bond companies along with Colorado Springs Utilities employees.

This wasn't a required trip. But Leigh says he felt it was more important to go to the Big Apple than to listen to community members, in this case. Leigh says relationships with bond companies are "pretty critical," and he thought he could help save the city money in the long run by attending.

Besides, he says, the concerns of citizens won't weigh into how he feels about the budget, which is that the mayor's budget should stand.

"It's not like I would have come away and had any earth-shattering recommendation after watching it," he said. "... My position's pretty clear in how I feel about the budget."

Leigh says he hasn't watched the meeting on video either, but might next week "if I get a chance."

Leigh stressed that he thought long-term conversations about policy were more important than meetings like the e-town hall, which he characterized as "short-term" and "emotional."

The meeting, by the way, was attended by a variety of people who spent hours waiting for a turn to talk. Some, using wheelchairs and walkers, had to arrange for special transportation to attend the meeting, since buses don't run that late at night.

Among the concerns were funding for parks and North Cheyenne Cañon, as well as for more buses and alternative transit services for the disabled and elderly. Many people explained to Council the challenges of trying to walk up a hill, or the sadness they felt at not being able to see friends or relatives due to a lack of transportation. Often, all they wanted was a bus stop to stay in the same place at no cost to the city, or for less than $50,000 out of a $225 million budget to be dedicated to better options for the needy.

Bennett couldn't immediately be reached for this blog.

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