Give us a lean, mean machine.

To judge by her remarks at her State of the City report, it seems that the mayor is dismayed by our city's penurious state.

Thanks to the voter-mandated repeal of a 1/2-cent sales tax dedicated to capital improvements back in 1991, the city has forgone a quarter of a billion dollars in tax revenues. And as the mayor pointed out, that quarter of a billion would have bought a lot of roads, bridges, overpasses, drainage structures, etc., etc.

In Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace's view, the time is long overdue for the voters to step up to the pump, bite the bullet, pull the trigger, mix their metaphors, and vote for new taxes!

That has never been an especially popular course with the Colorado Springs electorate. Ask 'em to vote for taxes whose proceeds are dedicated to a narrowly defined governmental function (e.g., parks and open space, public safety), and they might agree. But ask them to add a few dollars to the general fund, and they'll usually decline.

Why? Round up the usual reasons: Springs voters are reactionary troglodytes who hate government; they're all right-wing Republicans; they don't trust their (pick one or all) mayor, city council, city manager, county commissioners; they're transient and disinterested in their temporary home; they're greedy and anti-communitarian ... You get the idea.

If you ask our peerless elected officials, they'll give you the standard line "Well, the voters are just really picky and selective, and they know what they want, and we just have to do a good job, and they'll do what's right, blah blah blah."

That's for public consumption; privately, most of 'em are baffled, furious and/or despairing. They don't understand why we're in such a fix, while other western cities, whether ruled by Republicans or Democrats, seem to be able to persuade their citizens to fund the basic functions of government.

Years ago, Makepeace originated the cheesy but admirable notion that Colorado Springs ought to be a "world-class city." And when she stated last week that we're "on the verge of sliding into mediocrity," she was understating her case.

We've achieved mediocrity; given present funding, it'll be tough just to stay there.

But do we really need new taxes? Isn't there another solution? After all, our combined city/county sales tax rate isn't much below Denver's. And why do we get so little for our tax dollars?

That's an extraordinarily complicated question. Remember, just a few tenths of a percent difference in sales tax rates amounts to tens of millions annually. Moreover, Denver's property tax rates are far higher than ours, and Denver's per capita assessed value ratio is substantially greater than ours (compare downtown Denver to downtown Colorado Springs).

But in simple fact, Denver manages not only to fund adequately the necessities of government, but everything else as well -- baseball and football stadia, a stunning art museum, a spectacular central library, light rail, a magnificent parks system ... there's a world-class city in Colorado, and it ain't Colorado Springs.

Why are Denver voters so generous in passing bond issues, and so ready to pay higher taxes? Ask our local politicos, and they'll snort and harrumph disdainfully: "Just a bunch of damned Democrats, they'll vote for anything the government wants ..." Maybe so, but the City & County of Denver has something we don't -- a transparent, efficient and accountable local government.

In Colorado Springs, responsibility and authority is murkily divided between the city and the county. Nobody's in charge; we have a nonelected chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, an appointed city manager with administrative authority, an elected mayor with no more power than any of nine council members, and a county administrator who doubles as the county's chief financial officer (thereby supervising himself!).

It's a chaotic mess of overlapping jurisdictions, duplicated functions, and feuding bureaucracies. No sensible voter is going to give these guys a nickel, unless there are plenty of strings attached.

In Denver, by contrast, power and authority reside in the popularly elected mayor's office. Voters know who's in charge, who appoints department heads, and who's responsible. Elect a competent, charismatic mayor -- Wellington Webb in this case -- and bond issues get passed, things get done.

Down here in the Springs, our mayors, commissioners and managers can sweet-talk the voters all they want, but unless we fix the system, it won't work.

Just as murky accounting caused investors to flee the telecoms, voters may not wish to prop up creaky, inefficient local governments with more money.

County Administrator Terry Harris said it best just last week, several hours after the mayor's State of the City address. To a group of county watchdog activists, Harris admitted, the government is "broken."

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com


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