Critical condition 

City saves community centers, but more budget cuts to come

Every chair in the room is taken, and still more people pile in. They mass in the doorways and along the walls. They overflow into another room.

Today, they are silent. None are allowed to speak. Perhaps they think their presence will make a difference to the nine men and women gathered to decide the fate of their children's community centers and softball teams, the meal programs that put food in kids' bellies, the buses that carry many to doctors' appointments, and the police and firefighters who protect them. Also present are city employees, anxious to hear if they'll keep their jobs.

Outside the room, people in business suits are murmuring. Little girls in pink Colorado Springs Fire Department T-shirts play hide-and-seek.

Clearly confused

It's 1 p.m., time for City Council to talk about how to cut an additional $16.8 million from the 2009 budget. This, not even two months after the nine elected leaders had to cut $23 million from the same budget. No one feels good.

And at the meeting's start, no one seems to know what's going to happen. Even a few days before, after the councilors were individually briefed by City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft, they came away with different expectations.

Culbreth-Graft originally was planning to ask Council how much it wanted to cut from public safety (between 1 and 5 percent), which then would be used to determine how much would be cut from other departments (between 17 and 26 percent). But somehow, Councilor Jerry Heimlicher heard that Culbreth-Graft's proposal was to cut 1 percent from police, 3 percent from fire, and 26 percent from all other departments. Both Councilors Scott Hente and Margaret Radford expected the proposal to be a laundry list of possible cuts, with no percentage cuts proposed.

All were clear on only one thing: This cut would hurt.

The community, meanwhile, was awash in rumors. Parks employees whispered that every community and senior center would be shuttered. Others said the Pioneers Museum and City Auditorium would close.

And councilors' e-mail boxes were flooded. In less than 24 hours, Vice Mayor Larry Small says, he received more than 170 pleas from citizens.

No clean cuts

After all this, Monday's meeting feels anticlimactic. Trimming the budget winds up being more tedious than terrifying, and seats gradually go empty.

Monday brings only a few decisions: Public safety will take a 1 percent hit, resulting in cuts to community programs and elimination of some vacant positions. Community centers including the meal programs they house will be saved. Up to $9 million of the budget hole will be filled with one-time money and new revenues.

The one-time funds include $2.3 million ordinarily used to supplement Stormwater Enterprise fees, $2 million from the Parking Enterprise and $1.9 million in capitalized interest from the city's first payment on the U.S. Olympic Committee incentive package. Council will also use $1.4 million in Trails, Open Space and Parks maintenance money.

New revenues come from capping the vendor fee (part of the sales tax retailers are allowed to keep) at $100 for all except car dealers, a move expected to save around $900,000. Council also eliminates the downtown DASH shuttle, saving $500,000, and asks the city manager to look at increasing fees for sports.

But while some ideas are embraced, or reluctantly swallowed, others are panned or ignored. Heimlicher is incensed at the very mention of a streetlight repair fee. Only Councilor Randy Purvis comes out strongly in favor of considering reducing the general fund's contingency balance. The idea of furloughing employees five days without pay incites many, but Radford says most people would rather lose a paycheck than a job. Vice Mayor Larry Small says he wouldn't hurt employees with a furlough and suggests upper management should take a 5 percent pay cut.

That last comment draws a soft "Amen" from an older man in the audience.

Why now, what now?

Many councilors say they don't think the public would understand why there's a shortfall so early in the year. Trying to explain, Culbreth-Graft points to the decline in the city's manufacturing; an increasingly service-based economy in a city that depends on sales tax; consumers shopping on the Internet and not paying sales tax; the effects of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights; and specialized taxes passed by voters that don't benefit the general fund.

The city also suffered a $2.8 million hit when the county refused to fork over road and bridge funds. The city's health insurance costs jumped dramatically. The drop in sales tax collections in October was the largest on record, and November was bad, too.

With half the gap filled, Culbreth-Graft will have to present a new plan to Council that lops off $8 million from the general fund. Plenty of treasures still could be lost: the City Auditorium, bus routes, sports and aquatics programs.

Many cuts likely will affect less-visible departments like finance, development and human resources. But bus services could be hit particularly hard. The popular FrontRange Express to Denver remains a target. Express routes are, too. All Sunday service could be knocked out, along with some evening and peak-hour weekday service. Service to the east and inside Fort Carson could be eliminated.

Bad omens

Beyond occasional outbursts and pontification, Monday is full of sadness and stray grabs at a long-term solution.

Councilors know anything they cut may not return for years, if ever. Under TABOR, the city's annual spending cannot grow at a faster pace than inflation and population growth. That means even if the economy recovers next year, and sales tax collections rebound, the city will have to return most of the extra money to taxpayers. Essentially, city government will be stuck in the recession long after the rest of the city emerges from it.

"It will take five to 10 years to get some of these things back," Small says.

He suggests a property-tax increase to help the city stay on track. Councilor Darryl Glenn says the city should turn to public-private partnerships, or combining services with the county. Councilor Tom Gallagher says it's time to stop simply cutting until the budget is balanced.

"I won't continue to pick the scab off the wound," he says.

Purvis, meanwhile, hopes dire projections won't become reality. He hopes the surge of troops coming to Fort Carson spells better revenues in 2009. In contrast, Heimlicher thinks sales tax collections in 2009 might be even worse, with some big-box stores (Macy's, Circuit City) closing.

Still no consensus, save for a single group acknowledgement: that the cuts are painful.

"You use the analogy of the human body," Heimlicher says. "All the fat is gone, we cut the muscle in October, and now we're down to bone."



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