Measuring the effects of small government
by Sam Brasch, editor
Following unprecedented service cuts last month, Colorado Springs has made a bold statement to its residents and to the rest of the country: This is what small government looks like. And the image is not pretty.
Trashcans in city parks are already gone, replaced by signs asking visitors to pack out their waste. Thirty percent of streetlights have been turned off to reduce the cost of energy and maintenance. Police helicopters await sale online. With no money for water, all turf in public parks will be dead by July, which might be a relief for park users who have been encouraged to mow overgrown public spaces now that the city cannot keep the grass cut itself. Community centers, pending the intervention of charitable organizations, will be gone for good, robbing low-income residents of cheap childcare. Buses that helped carless commuters reach work now only appear every hour, disappearing on evenings and weekends. In short, the urban fabric that Colorado Springs residents take for granted lies dilapidated and wounded, and the city’s condition is only getting worse.
At first blush, it might seem that the grass remains greener within the boundaries of the Colorado College. The walkways are well lit. Our daycare center will continue to provide childcare for administrative staff and faculty. But as Vice Mayor Larry Small points out, “[Colorado College students] don’t live in a ‘bubble,’ but are an integral part of our community. If stores close, transit is cut, police and fire services are cut, students are just as affected as permanent residents. Council decisions affect your life as well.” And indeed they have. The DASH bus no longer provides students easy access to shops and restaurants downtown, and the Front Range Express—which shuttled students to Denver from just outside the Worner Center—now stops a full mile away from campus. Volunteer organizations with state funding must now maintain the parks many CC students use as college-level playgrounds, like North Cheyenne Canyon and the Garden of the Gods. For better or for worse, this city is our city and students cannot help but notice signs of a crisis creeping onto campus.
The stark nature of these service cuts has also placed a dubious national spotlight on Colorado Springs, though most stories far oversimplify and underestimate the problem. Diane Sawyer began a report on ABC Evening News saying, “Colorado Springs . . . has taken budget cutting to a whole new level.” But the story, only fifteen seconds long, never asks the harder questions. Who has done the cutting? Why? And what does it mean for one of the largest and fastest-growing cities in the West?
As government services disappear it might feel natural to point the accusatory finger at, well, the city government. In truth, the City of Colorado Springs only controls the allocation of the resources the voters allow—and so far residents have been far from generous. “I saw these cuts coming and I didn’t want to go down this road until the voters had a say,” said City Council member Jan Martin. “I don’t think it was just voters saying that they didn’t want parks or lights—we ran smack dab into a national mistrust of government. It wasn’t just that people didn’t want services anymore, either. It was a bigger sentiment than that.”
The root of the problem also lies deep within the legal structure of the city itself. In 1991, Doug Bruce—a Springs anti-tax advocate and former Colorado State Representative—managed to pass a city-based version of his infamous Tax Payer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, into the city law books. In essence, this set of laws forces any increase in taxes to be approved by voters and restricts growth in the city budget to the increase in inflation plus the percentage increase in total economic growth.
Even though many Colorado Springs residents see taxes as a heinous crime rather than a necessary evil, TABOR has had ill-intended side effects. For one, the laws turn voters into public accountants, which may seem like a good idea for programs voters favor, like parks and firefighters, but starves the city government of funds for more mundane functions, like paying city employees. What’s more, the laws have a “ratchet-down” effect on the budget. If, for instance, the city spends one million dollars in 2009 but experiences a 10 percent decrease in economic size, then the city can only spend nine-hundred thousand dollars in 2010. Thus, according to Vice Mayor Small, if and when the economy turns around and TABOR allows for some amount of budget growth, it will take the budget “a full 20 years” to reach a point where the city could reinstate cut services.
So while TABOR intends to be a simple anti-tax law, it works like a citywide cryogenic freezing tank. As other Front Range cities move beyond the consequences of the Great Recession, Colorado Springs’s budget will remain squarely stuck in 2009. Not to mention that the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments predicts that in twenty years the total population of Colorado Springs will have nearly doubled its current size.
Last November, Councilwoman Jan Martin and others tried to “de-Bruce” some of the city tax policy in a desperate plea to voters. Referendum 2C promised to save many of the public services that have now fallen under the axe, but at the cost of a threefold increase in property taxes. Bruce, in the meantime, ignored the financial woes he helped create and managed to place his own initiative on the ballot, called Measure 300, to cut a city fee for the maintenance of storm drains.
In an unprecedented joint endorsement, the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Colorado Springs Independent encouraged their readers to vote “Yes” on 2C and “No” on 300. “We’ve taken this unusual step,” wrote the combined editorial boards of both papers, “because our two newspapers separately reached the same conclusion: In economic and human terms, it would be destructive if, as our city’s population continues to grow, city services are drastically cut.”
In November, Colorado Springs residents gave Bruce an enthusiastic high-five and the city government a cruel slap in the face. Measure 300 passed by a slim margin, and Referendum 2C failed by a more than two-to-one majority.
Understanding the rationale behind such absolute aversion to taxes proves daunting for many progressively minded individuals on campus, especially when voters so clearly understood the consequences. “People just defaulted to, ‘We don’t trust our government,’” said Kira Pasquesi, head of the Center for Civic Engagement on campus and an advocate for 2C. “They never saw past, ‘Well, city government hasn’t made good decisions in the past, they won’t make good decisions in the future. We won’t trust them with our money.’” Colorado College professor David Torres-Rouff, who specializes in the history of urban America, described such absolute opposition to taxes as “fuzzy thinking.” “If you really can’t trust your city council, fine. Conservative voters have proven themselves imminently capable of using recall initiatives to remove school board members; do the same for the city council. But don’t cripple city government’s ability to provide resources.”
Both Pasquesi and Torres-Rouff struggle to see the logical leap between a mistrust of the current city government to a mistrust of all government. Moreover, mistrusting voters seem to be missing a middle ground where supposed conservative values and a reasonable amount of taxes can coexist: well-funded police keep crime rates low, beautiful public parks raise property values.
For most people who voted against 2C and in favor of 300, though, changes in city services have had, and will continue to have, little impact on their own day-to-day lives. “At the town hall meeting I went to on Referendum 2C there was a group of Fort Carson residents there to show their opposition,” said Annie Evankow, a Colorado College sophomore and city activist. “But why should they care? They don’t deal with the buses or the parks or anything like that. Everything’s more or less taken care of on the base.” Worse, according to Torres-Rouff, are voters who hide within the “bubble” of suburban wealth. “Most of the people who voted in favor of these things won’t see the consequences,” he commented. “What if the city government solved their budget problems by saving funding for homeless shelters and cutting funding for road work? See if rich white suburbanites can snake their own main sewers or fill their own potholes. Cut that. Overflow them with poop. Let them break the axles on their beautiful Range Rovers.”
As overused as the term “bubble” might be within our own, well, bubble, the concept may be instructive in understanding the long-term changes Colorado Springs will face as a result of complete government minimalism. Already, the Springs isn’t even a homogenous “city” but a collection of smaller communities—the Air Force Academy, Fort Carson, and, yes, Colorado College. Notions of class and race more loosely define other communities. But as one set of “bubbles” holds onto the few remaining benefits of city services and lower classes watch them slip away, our town will only become more and more disjointed.