The city's ominous options 

City Sage

Events at El Pomar Foundation's Penrose House, while heavily attended by serious, civic-minded folks, are attractive to raffish idlers for one simple reason: the open bar.

It was in this spirit that I ventured forth on Monday evening to an event sponsored by the Forum for Civic Advancement, featuring a presentation by Harry Zeeve, national field director of the Concord Coalition. His talk would focus on the parlous state of our debt-addicted government, and the difficulties (impossibilities?) of finding a bipartisan solution to our fiscal woes.

Weighty stuff — I figured that we were in for at least an hour of charts, figures and budget minutiae. Best arrive early, have a Chardonnay or two, work the crowd, and doze amiably through the speeches.

Alas, it was not to be. The adults in charge, led by Kyle Hybl, decreed that the bar would not open until the main event concluded. So I listened — and as Zeeve quipped, maybe it would have been better if the bar had been open. His facts and figures were unassailable, the consequences of continued political paralysis grim and inevitable.

Unless both political parties agree to curb spending on entitlements (particularly Medicare and Medicaid) and increase taxes, Zeeve says, the United States may cease to exist as we know it. We'll be like today's Greece, Argentina in the 1990s, or Germany in the 1920s. Far from "the indispensable nation," we'll be the world's problem child, a country of big-spending wastrels, suddenly with neither credit nor assets.

In an apt metaphor, the speaker compared our national predicament to that of a spendthrift family with an income of $50,000 annually.

"For a few years, you can live as if you were making $70,000," he said. "You can refinance your house, run up your credit cards, live large. But eventually you can't make all your payments, you can't refinance, your favorite rich uncle won't lend you any money, and you have to cut expenses radically, work longer hours, make more money, and rebuild."

Simple enough — but our peerless leaders in Washington haven't been able to do it.

How about our leaders in Colorado Springs? Are we doing any better?

Mayor Steve Bach has just released his proposed 2012 budget, containing few surprises. Revenue is projected flat or slightly up, the city work force will shed another 37.5 positions, and neighborhood parks will get less water, thanks to the "discontinuation of CSU's pilot water conservation rate." Our long-term fiscal dilemmas seem to parallel those of the nation.

The city's "Eight-Year Financial Outlook" projects that pension costs will increase by 8 percent annually between 2013 and 2019, with employee health care costs rising by 7.5 percent. Unless revenues keep pace (which they almost certainly won't), we'll be up shit creek by the end of the decade, our fund balance exhausted, and facing a $5 million structural deficit.

Washington pols rolled over for special interests, cutting taxes and increasing benefits, but they didn't do it in a vacuum. That's what voters wanted; Congress was happy to oblige.

Colorado Springs' pols (and voters) are no different. Back in 1988, City Council dropped the property tax mill levy from 11 to 6.131 mills. Three years later, city voters embraced Doug Bruce's mini-TABOR, producing more mill-levy reductions. Today's 4.279 mills will bring $18.6 million, a far cry from the $47.8 million that 11 mills would generate. And the state Legislature addressed the public employees pension fund by upping employer contributions for the next few years — hence the 8 percent annual increases.

So here we are, and it ain't pretty. In 1993, when the city's population was 309,229, the fire department employed 381 people and the police department 648. Today, with 428,277 residents, the fire department will have 372 employees, while the police will have 768. To maintain 1993's employee/population ratio, the police would have to add 128 new hires.

Fiscally constrained by low tax revenues, hemmed in by inexorably rising employee costs, what can a well-intentioned mayor do? He can't raise taxes, he can't expect the Legislature to bail out the city, and he can't get rid of that uppity Scott Hente ... so why not fire the police chief?

Whatever — just don't raise my taxes.



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