Co. Springs budget woes lead to cuts

Marketplace Staff Feb 17, 2010
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Co. Springs budget woes lead to cuts

Marketplace Staff Feb 17, 2010
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Kai Ryssdal: Even as he gets ready to name that commission on the budget deficit, President Obama was celebrating the first anniversary of his economic stimulus program today. But right on the heels of telling us how many jobs have been saved or created, the president was warning about layoffs to come — as stimulus money that states are getting runs out.

Layoffs are already the reality in Colorado Springs, Colo. The state constitution there makes it pretty hard to raise taxes, so instead, city officials have found some attention-getting ways to cut spending. From Colorado Public Radio, Zachary Barr has more.


Zachary Barr: Renee Bergen fixes streetlamps for a living. So for her, the irony of today’s job is clear.

RENEE BERGEN: It’s opposite of what I usually do. Usually I’m supposed to keep the lights on, you know.

Bergen climbs aboard a white bucket truck and is hoisted up into the air. She’s set to disable a working streetlight.

BERGEN: We will swap out the sensor, and put orange marker tape.

The orange tape signifies the light’s turned off and over the next few months, crews will repeat this task 10,000 times. City officials believe the savings will total over a million dollars a year. But that’s not enough to plug a $28 million funding gap. So other cuts include night and weekend bus service, and a police helicopter unit. Additionally, the city now has 15 percent fewer employees than two years ago.

That’s according to City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft.

Penny Culbreth-Graft: We have a significant long-term financial issue that is basically a product of our desire to keep services going without a revenue stream to pay for those services.

That revenue stream is taxes. And taxes in Colorado Springs are a lot smaller than in other cities its size. The city’s 400,000 residents are politically conservative with a well-known anti-tax streak, and they’ve got a powerful state law on their side. Colorado’s taxpayer’s bill of rights means…

JAN MARTIN: Municipalities do not have the ability to raise taxes without the vote of the people.

Jan Martin’s on city council. She introduced a large property tax hike on last November’s ballot. It was specifically designed to offset the funding gap. Residents overwhelmingly rejected the tax increase.

Businessman Chuck Fowler was one of those anti-tax voters.

CHUCK FOWLER: Governments have a tendency to grow and get big and take on things that many believe they shouldn’t be taking on. And that’s the case here and that’s the case everywhere.

Fowler heads a business group critical of how the city’s handling its budget. He believes city officials are ignoring the obvious.

FOWLER: They’re going for the things that are easy to cut rather than the things that are hard to cut. And the things that are hard to cut deal with human beings and personnel.

Fowler says the city needs to look much harder at pay-cuts and lay-offs. But city officials have decided that its employees shouldn’t take pay cuts just because residents want to keep taxes low. So instead, Parks and Recreation took a big hit. That department’s budget was recently slashed by 75 percent.

In more than 100 city parks, you’ll no longer see a trash can. The grass may go brown because there’s no money to water. Bathrooms are locked shut and pools and rec centers are set to be closed.

Dean Hightower and his dog are regular visitors to the city’s largest park.

DEAN HIGHTOWER: There’s a lot of people in Colorado Springs who really rely on being able to come to the park and have a good time, but the budget shortfall that we’ve got right now is just killing everybody. I mean, look at our roads.

Speaking of roads, the city’s cut its paving unit to zero for budgetary reasons.

In Colorado Springs, I’m Zachary Barr for Marketplace.

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