The time to act is now 

Fixing the budget will shock the community this time

Attention, Colorado Springs: Our worst nightmare has officially arrived. And it won't be ending any time soon.

Don't take those chilling words as an intentional exaggeration. Please, don't think of this as some kind of scare tactic. It's not.

All around us, what had been an efficient, innovative, wide-reaching Colorado Springs city government is crumbling before our eyes. El Paso County probably is no more than a couple months from a similar fate.

We're not talking about creative trimming and shrewd bookkeeping anymore. No more getting by with layoffs and cuts largely behind the scenes, never impacting public safety.

Today, we're seeing the start of a horror show. That's the only honest way to describe the repulsive options heading for City Council.

Take your pick: No more community centers, offering vital programs for young and old, especially in lower-income areas. No more recreation in Parks and Rec, slamming the door on thousands of kids and adults. Severe cuts to bus service, including to Denver. Mothballs for the Pioneers Museum and City Auditorium.

There could be mass furloughs across the city, along with reductions for the police and fire departments. All told, sources say, possibly 150 city employees may lose their jobs, after nearly 100 other positions were cut in recent months.

Let's forget about placing blame. That won't help solve this crisis. This isn't the time to single out the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights or leaning too much on sales tax, growth and tourism. They're all factors, along with the overall economy.

We've lost our equilibrium, and we're about to lose much, much more. This isn't just another slump, meaning we just hunker down and ride out this storm until the next comeback. No matter how successful Barack Obama's administration might be in repairing the national economy, the local pain is inevitable.

Even a few months ago, nobody could see how bad this would be today. The perception has been that the city and county always would pull more rabbits out of the hat, squeeze here and there, and make the bottom line work. But the reserves, tricks and easy-outs are gone.

"It's too late for 'I told you so,'" City Councilor Margaret Radford says. "Now is the time to work through this together. I just hope we learn from this, and that the next time we say a train wreck is coming, people will believe us."

Put simply, the time has come to reinvent our city and county governments. No more waiting and hoping. We need leaders on all sides to realize the seriousness of this moment and quickly unite to do something about it.

We have to find a better way to make the most of our local governments in a time of constant responsibilities but fast-shrinking resources. We have to decide what basic services we want and expect, and at what levels: public safety, bus service, community centers, recreation programs and more.

We need some kind of revised, sufficient, smart taxing structure that people understand and accept as the only realistic funding solution. We have to decide just how much we truly care about quality of life, because that's what we're now losing. So why not be open to new ideas, directions and alliances?

This doesn't mean selling Memorial Hospital, bad timing given its debt from expansion and a soft market. It doesn't mean selling Colorado Springs Utilities, leading to higher rates for everyone from a purely profit-driven new owner.

We need voices of reason and wisdom to step forward, from different philosophies, backgrounds and generations.

Here's one way to deal with the new reality: As soon as possible, City Council and the County Commission should convene an emergency public meeting. They should set up an action team from both groups, plus more from across the public spectrum. It would be smart to add other bright minds, not so recognizable, but bringing youth and diversity. Perhaps even a political science professor or two.

That kind of group could come up with specific, bold ideas, then take the proposals to the members' own constituencies and convince people to believe, and trust. Something would have to go to voters, as soon as possible.

We're not talking about next year, or someday. The nightmare is here, and now.


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