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Outsider

Bags and bags of money

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In 1982, we were one of the least-congested cities in America. Driving was easy, relaxing, stress-free; so much so that we felt sorry for the poor saps who lived in Denver, Dallas, Atlanta or wherever. We ruled ...

Alas, those times are no more. Where, as Marcel Proust might have asked, are the uncrowded highways of yesteryear? Gone, drowned by a flood of people in their cars, all in a futile hurry to get somewhere. But they'd better hurry up and wait. We now spend an average of two hours a month stuck in traffic. Far from being the least-congested small city, we're now more congested than most medium-sized cities in the country.

Why? Growth has contributed more drivers, more homes, more people and more businesses, but growth alone only accounts for part of the increase. It'd be great if we could just blame it all on the developers and their paid-for politicians (Steve Schuck! He's ruined the school system, and I-25 is entirely his fault!) ... but we can't.

No, the fault, dear fellow citizens, is not in our stars (or our Schucks) but in ourselves. Back in the early '90s we bought a couple of prettily wrapped tax reduction packages from Douglas Bruce, and now we're getting the bill.

In 1991, Bruce rounded up enough signatures to put a couple of charter amendments on the local ballot. Both passed. One was a kind of mini-Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) and the other simply eliminated a half-cent sales tax whose proceeds were dedicated to capital improvements. Two years later, the statewide TABOR amendment passed, thanks to strong support from Springs voters. That amendment, as we all know by now, sharply limited the growth of government spending and mandated the return of "excess" revenue to the taxpayers.

Sounded great at the time, didn't it? Keep those guv'mint bureaucrats from putting their hands in our pockets! Make government lean and efficient! No more waste, fraud and abuse! No more high-minded giveaways of taxpayer dollars!

That's fine, but here's what happened. Because of Bruce's initiatives, Colorado Springs has lost, over the last 13 years, close to a billion dollars in transportation and infrastructure funding. That's the money that would have allowed us to keep up with growth and minimize congestion. That's the money that would have built bridges and separated-grade intersections (Austin Bluffs and Union, for example).

So where'd the money go? Individually, most of us got small refunds over the years, or a tax break, as governments struggled to match revenue to the TABOR limits. Seemed OK at the time, but now we're left holding the bag.

So what now? November's ballot will include a proposal to impose a 1 percent county sales tax, to be used -- you guessed it -- for transportation and transit. But even if it passes, we'll still be in deep doo-doo. We can never make up the deficits of the locust years; the hole we dug for ourselves is simply too deep.

Compare us to Denver, whose citizens have consented to be taxed not only for necessities like transportation, but for everything else that makes a city livable, like parks, stadiums, zoos, a world-class art museum, a magnificent library ... it's a very long list. Fifteen years ago, Federico Pea ran for mayor of Denver with the slogan "Imagine a Great City." How cheesy -- I couldn't believe that he won. But look at Denver now. Thanks to Denver's voters, and to Mayors Pea, Wellington Webb and John Hickenlooper (a mayoral "Murderer's Row" like Ruth, Gehrig and Dickey of the 1927 Yankees), Denver is a great city.

Oh, but they've got outrageously high taxes, right? Well, yeah, their property taxes are somewhat higher than ours. But if November's transportation tax passes, our combined city-county sales tax rate will be almost exactly equivalent to Denver's -- 7.2 percent versus 7.3 percent.

So let's all thank the Dougster, who has managed to persuade a majority of Springs voters that there is such a thing as a free lunch. Why, we can have uncrowded highways, untrammeled growth, easy commutes, and low taxes -- no problem!

And I'm waiting for County Commissioner Dougie, if he wins in November, to find that spare billion to fix everything overnight. I bet that's why he wants the big office -- all of those old boxes stacked in the corner are just full of long-forgotten taxpayer dollars.

Then again, maybe Saddam Hussein left 'em there ...

-- johnhazlehurst@earthlink.net

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