Now for the cuts
Voters reject 2C, back 300; budget shortfall rises to $33 million

       Slapped down by the voters, City Council will soon begin revisions on a 2010 general-fund budget that needs to be trimmed now by $33 million.

Discussing issues related to the Nov. 3 city election are Mayor Lionel Rivera (left) and Councilmember Jan Martin.
Westside Pioneer photo

       After ballots for the mail-in election were tallied Nov. 3, not only had council's proposed 2C property tax increase failed, but voters also approved a citizen initiative (300) that will eventually save individual taxpayers an estimated $140 a year by eliminating payments to the city from city-owned enterprises (chiefly Springs Utilities).
       City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft had previously recommended a list of budget cuts totaling $29.3 million - including closures on the Westside of the Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site and West Center - in the event that 2C failed. Other major spending slashes she proposed are in the areas of transit (fewer routes, run less often), parks maintenance (only 13 parks would continue to be maintained, plus all city pools and community centers would close) and public safety (eliminating police and firefighter positions).
       With 300's victory, another $3.7 million, according to city figures, will now need to be identified. The impacts of 300 will also be felt in coming-year budgets, because it represents a phasing out of the enterprise payments over eight years. Thus, the reduction would be $7.2 million next year, the year after that 10.9 million, and so on until reaching $29.6 million in the last year.
       On 2C, the citizen vote was 62,923 (63.29 percent) against vs. 36,501 in favor (36.71 percent). On 300, the vote was slightly closer - 53,241 (54.55 percent) in favor vs. 44,352 (45.45 percent) against.
       “I certainly was disappointed,” said Councilmember Jan Martin, who had proposed 2C because she wanted citizens to have an option other than simply cutting services. “But I have no regrets about letting the public weigh in on these serious city issues.”
       Councilmembers are slated to start discussing budget cuts after their 1 p.m. informal meeting Monday, Nov. 9. Depending on how much consensus there is, other meetings may also be scheduled before the next official budget session Nov. 23, she said. The official adoption of the 2010 budget is set for Dec. 8.
       At a press conference Nov. 4, Mayor Lionel Rivera said the message from voters was clear, that in “tough economic times” when many people are having to tighten their belts, they want their city to “shrink the size of government.” Although he predicted that council will mostly follow Graft's proposed cuts for the 2010 budget, he added, “It's safe to say that everything is on the table.”
       One proposal, by Councilmember Tom Gallagher, is to save money by lowering employee salaries. Rivera said he disagrees with that idea, because when employees are retained, even at lower rates, they still draw benefits that cost the city. Rivera's answer instead would be to “shrink the workforce,” he said.
       Andy McElhany, the former Westside state senator who led the opposition to 2C through a group called Citizens for Cost Effective Government, offered to help council move forward. “What we're hoping is that City Council will go back to square one and start putting the budget together in a positive way. Our group will work with council if they want a budget that has minimum impact on the citizens.”
       His thinking is that even after eliminating more than 200 positions over the previous two years, the city remains top-heavy in its administrative areas and should cut more there before targeting areas such as public safety, parks and transit.
       Asked about the election, McElhany said he believed “it was several things. Property taxes fall the hardest on small businesses [under a state law]. They pay four times the rate that residents pay,” Voters also had the perception that the city has a “long list of revenue enhancements” now, including the open space sales tax, Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) sales tax, the public safety tax and the stormwater fee, which bring in millions of dollars annually. “People felt enough was enough,” McElhany said.
       Martin said she has no plans, at least for the time being, to come back with any other tax or fee proposals. “The good thing about the election is that it started conversations in town that will serve the community well,” she said. “I think City Council needs to move forward. Once the budget is settled, we can resume those conversations.”
       On the other hand, Ron Wright, president of Rock Ledge Ranch's volunteer Living History Association (LHA), wants to get started on new intitatives right away. “I am not going to let this place fold up and be mothballed,” he emphasized. “The true history of Colorado Springs started on this side of town. Rock Ledge Ranch is an important part of that, and I don't want to see its demise.”
       One possibility he and others are considering is a “head tax” similar to what Denver charges people who live outside Denver but use its services. But such ideas are still preliminary, Wright said.
       If passed, 2C would have injected about $25 million into the city's general fund this year - and theoretically prevented most of the budget cuts - via a 6-mill property tax increase. Successive 1-mill increases would have given the city $46 million a year by 2013.
       Rivera tried to put somewhat of a postive spin on the situation. “Colorado Springs will continue,” he said, offering as examples that transit will not be gone altogether (the portion funded by the Pikes Peak Rural Transit Authority will remain), and the open space tax will allow possible purchases of open space or trails. “There will just be fewer amenities,” the mayor concluded, “than in the past.”

Westside Pioneer article