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Budget time for the city


Once again, it's October. And although that may not mean much to sensible folks, it means a lot to the nine ample egos who occupy the equally ample chairs on the City Council dais. It's budget time, and our pitifully underpaid councilmembers will have to work for their miserable stipends.

The Y2K preliminary budget was unveiled on Monday, accompanied by the usual dire warnings. According to City Manager Mullen, unless you no-good citizens ante up a few million more in taxes, it'll be hard cheese for all. Fewer cops, fewer firefighters; in Mullenspeak, "Without increasing our revenue streams, we are faced with insufficient resources to meet service needs."

Well, I dunno; what I do know is what we've got: a virtually incomprehensible, patently unreadable volume, weighing several pounds, the product of months of work by scores of talented people. Ominously, it has a purple cover -- a good indicator of the quality of prose contained therein.

In politics, knowledge is power. During my six years on Council, only Bob Isaac understood the budget. He knew when the administration was fudging numbers, or burying data that led to inconvenient conclusions. He knew the status of obscure special funds and how funds could be shifted and numbers manipulated. It was comforting to know that Bob wouldn't let the managers get away with anything; it was disquieting to realize that none of the rest of us knew what the hell was going on.

As presented, the budget is in many ways, a propaganda sheet for the city's menu of "revenue enhancements" (read: new taxes). And although glowing scenarios are presented that emphasize all the good things that the city could do with mo' money, they don't exactly highlight the not-so-good stuff they do with the money they've already got.

Won't you join me for a walk on the wild side, a quick sample tour of the seamy underbelly of the budget?

Bed & Car Tax. A tax on car rentals and hotel rooms brings in a cool 4 million bucks. The city uses it as a kind of all-purpose slush fund to pay off the powerful, reward the faithful and do good. The visitor industry's promotional arm gets $2.55 million (up from $2.4 million last year), but the Fine Arts Center and the symphony get stiffed (10 G's for the FAC, down from 80; 75 G's for the symphony, down from 110), and the Pikes Peak Hill Climb gets 70 grand. The city sucks up the rest for what it describes vaguely as "tourist-related expenses incurred by the general fund." Given the latest financial "crisis," it's simply unbelievable that the city not only continues to subsidize the Pikes Peak Hill Climb but has increased its subsidy by over 100 percent (from $30,000 to $70,000).

Pikes Peak. Buried in the fine print of the Pikes Peak Highway Enterprise budget (p. 14-39) under the heading "legal defense fund" is a line item of $230,000 from last year's budget. Sued (successfully, we might add) by the Sierra Club for their appalling mismanagement of the highway, the city simply ripped off the supposedly independent Highway Enterprise to pay their lawyers. Sleazy and unethical? Well, sure, but who's gonna sue 'em?

And don't be getting any ideas, you citizen activists: $2.9 million of the budget funds the city attorney's office, whose legion of lawyers are ready to squash you like a bug.

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