Town hall: Mayor answers critics, shares budget vision

       Frank talk from Mayor Steve Bach, along with a sobering city budget presentation, made for a lively town hall March 19 at the Colorado Springs Shrine Club.
       Close to 100 people attended the second Westside town hall by the mayor in two months.

Mayor Steve Bach answers a question during the town hall March 19 at the Colorado Springs Shrine Club.
Westside Pioneer photo

       However, similar to the mayor's first gathering Feb. 19 at the Old Colorado City History Center, most of the topics raised - by either Bach or the public - were not directly related to the Westside itself.
       The only locally specific concern was brought up by a resident of Laurel Street (an older neighborhood off Columbia Road), who was not happy with a recent Laurel Street paving job. “Most of it came off on the [city] truck tires,” was his comment.
       City Public Works Director Helen Migchelbrink, one of several department heads at the town hall, responded that she would look into the complaint.
       City Finance Director Kara Skinner and Mayor's Chief of Staff Laura Neumann gave a brief budget presentation. Skinner explained that one tactic this year is “priority-based budgeting,” in which the idea is to allocate spending based on what citizens say they want. So town hall attendees were given forms on which they could mark their spending preferences.
       Also handed out were forms allowing people to rate the mayor's performance, as well as that of individual city departments.
       The Skinner-Neumann segment featured “key community benefits” in the budgets of the last two years. Listed examples were bringing back evening bus service, restoring 3,500 streetlights, funding some stormwater needs and beefing up public safety.
       But the staffers, as well as the mayor, expressed concern about budgets to come. Bach told the audience, “I don't want to scare you, but I want to be honest. If we don't change our approach [to the way city government runs], we'll go bankrupt.”
       He identified city employee benefits as “far and away” the main spending problem. Currently, someone who retires after working for the city 30 years will get 80 percent of his last three years' average salary for the rest of his life, Bach said. He also noted that employees pay $100 a month for a “Cadillac” health plan. It was $50 a year ago, and he is proposing to increase that again.
       “There's one councilman who's said he won't balance the budget on the backs of the employees,” Bach told the audience. “Then whose backs do you want to balance it on?”
       On the revenue side, Bach said his office is seeking to “create an environment” for job creation that will in turn spark increased tax revenues for the city. Small businesses are the key, he believes, saying he is trying to get away from past, unsuccesful city policies of attracting big businesses. He said his goal is to have the city be the “most business- and citizen-friendly community in the country.” To that end, city staff is also looking at ways to streamline plan approval, eliminate some regulations and cut fees, he said.
       Bach used the town hall to respond to accusations that have surfaced elsewhere, that he wants to sell Colorado Springs Utilities and/or decommission its Drake power plant. “That's a bunch of rubbish you've heard,” he said, adding the opinion that “the media is looking for stories to discredit me.”
       One unnamed “tabloid” even suggested to him that he was using his influence to close Drake and have it sold “to a few of my friends” for a new Sky Sox stadium, Bach related. He said he gave a sarcastic response: “Sure, we can all have heated seats.” Nonetheless, “they ran with the story anyway,” he said.
       What he said he's actually been doing is posing what he thinks are appropriate questions for a mayor to ask about Utilities (although City Council has actual governing power over the city-owned enterprise). For example, he is concerned that the Neumann scrubbers will cost too much and not clean enough pollutants. To cover the $120 million Neumann contract, Bach said he has asked Utilities how much customer rates will need to rise but has not gotten an answer.
       One attendee inquired about Bach's frequent disputes with City Council. Bach said part of it is getting used to the new charter set-up in which he, as the first “strong mayor,” has more powers than mayors used to have. “Change is hard, even positive change,” he said.
       He also revealed his opposition to the ballot question in the current election seeking to raise annual City Council salaries from $6,250 to $48,000. “If that happens, what services does City Council want me to cut? [to pay the cost]” Bach asked. He suggested that the true need is “to reinvent our City Council” as part of an overall effort to “rethink everything we're doing to serve our community better.”
       One issue where he was glad he fought council was over the FREX bus service to Denver. Bach was able to terminate the service last summer, despite a council majority, by using his power to approve or disapprove contracts. The roughly $1 million savings allowed the city to afford expanded bus service on fixed routes. This helps many more people than those who rode FREX, and those people also earn much lower incomes than the FREX riders, Bach said.

Westside Pioneer article