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City's nightmare coming true 

Between the Lines

After months of uncertainty, we're starting to hear what cutting $23.7 million from the city's already-threadbare budget in 2010 will mean to you and me. It's ghastly, to say the least.

Aw, surely not that bad, you say. Just another batch of scare tactics from City Council.

Except that it's not.

We've already guessed many likely cuts: shutting down city parks, pools and recreational sports; severely curtailing, or closing, community and senior centers; snowplowing and fixing potholes only on major thoroughfares; padlocking such institutions as City Auditorium and Pioneers Museum.

At least two more blockbusters are coming, according to City Councilors Jerry Heimlicher and Jan Martin:

• Cutting 7 percent or more from public safety, which could mean 40 to 50 sworn officers gone from police and fire combined;

• Eliminating the city's bus system entirely, except perhaps for a few routes funded with guaranteed Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority money.

"It's hard to believe all this is happening," Martin says. "All we can do is let people know that reality has set in."

"This is pretty dire stuff now," Heimlicher says. "None of this will be painless. This isn't just about parks or snowplows, but how we want to live and how we want our children to live."

Nothing is decided yet, but the fallbacks and reserve funds are gone. The cataclysm that many have feared is about to unfold.

"It's going to be an ugly process," Councilor Scott Hente says. "There's no good news. To be honest, it's gonna be miserable."

One by one, the city's elected leaders are hearing from City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft about the 2010 budget's realities, which she'll present publicly Aug. 10. Some details could change, but not Culbreth-Graft's main message: The days of whittling and maneuvering are over.

"It just breaks my heart to think some of these community assets that we value so much [are] literally being shuttered," says Martin, a Springs native.

This doesn't mean Council is united on how to handle the looming crisis. Some feel the time has come to force people to live without parks, pools, sports and perhaps even their bus system, to see if then they'll pay to restore quality-of-life facilities and services.

"But I just don't believe that's a road we want to go down," Martin says. "We need to have another option out there, and then let people choose. But we have to make people understand that if they say no, all of those terrible cuts will happen."

That's why Martin is pushing a ballot issue, which she'll ask City Council to submit for consideration in the November election, after the city this week informed the county of its intention to participate. She's proposing a 6-mill property tax increase in 2010, adding an additional mill each of the next four years, while eliminating the city's business personal property tax. That would produce $25 million starting next year, Martin figures, rising to $43 million annually by 2014.

"This doesn't solve our problems," Martin says. "It just stops the bleeding."

Martin thinks she might have enough Council support to get the measure onto the ballot, but Heimlicher isn't sure. He talks about "doing research, finding out exactly what's needed and what people expect from their government, then going to the public one time."

"But I do know one thing," he adds. "There ain't no way police and fire can be spared from this. That's the reality of where we are now."

Some on Council hope the city's Sustainable Funding Committee can help create revenue, with that group planning to offer a rumored 60 to 70 options in August. They could include selling Valley Hi Golf Course and the city parking garages, perhaps Memorial Hospital. But how fast could any of that happen?

"As I talk to people, they want to have an option," Martin says forcefully. "We owe it to the public to give them a choice. The quality of life here is so precious that we can't let it go without a big fight. But it'll require a grassroots effort like this city has never seen before."

routon@csindy.com

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