What will Steve Bach do when he takes office after Memorial Day? Will he content himself with rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic (oops — I meant the mayor's office), and let himself be buried in the minutiae of governing? Or will he offer a radical new budget, with sweeping changes to employee benefits and salaries?
And whatever he does, will it make any noticeable difference in our lives?
As an organization, the city and its many satrapies (Memorial, Utilities, the Pikes Peak Highway, the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, etc.) resemble nothing so much as a series of long-established military posts scattered across an occasionally hostile landscape. Just as the United States maintains overseas bases in scores of countries for reasons that are sometimes difficult to fathom, the city has a vast, puzzling structure of functions, enterprises and employees.
Do we need to have a municipal hospital? A municipally owned four-service utility? A mountain highway? More streetlights than we can afford? More parks than we can maintain?
If the city were a privately owned corporation, a new CEO would look at this bloated, underfinanced, jerry-built collection of unrelated subsidiaries and get to work. He'd quickly figure out what to sell, what to close, and where to expand.
Right now, Bach can't be that powerful CEO. He was strong, decisive and capable during his campaign, but he won't be able to accomplish much in office until the City Charter is amended once again. Today's charter, "strong mayor" or not, actually strips him of responsibility for everything but the city itself, leaving the enterprise system to City Council.
Bach will be the first mayor in the city's modern history who owes nothing to city employees, who overwhelmingly supported Richard Skorman. That frees Bach to immediately reform our bizarrely generous workers' compensation policies, to move toward a defined contribution retirement plan for new employees, and to examine the actual cost of the city's workforce.
Such changes might free up enough money in the budget to make a powerful statement of city priorities.
Imagine if Bach announced that thanks to improving city revenues and tight cost controls, renovation of the long-neglected City Auditorium would begin immediately. That would begin to fulfill his oft-repeated campaign pledge to strengthen and rebuild downtown, and would define his administration as one of builders, not bureaucrats. It would also win over many of Skorman's voters, who fear that Bach's real mission is to cut, slash and burn.
That's almost surely not the case.
A few months ago, I was lurking in the back of a meeting to which no members of the press had been invited. (I wore a suit — it was an effective disguise!) One of the city's most powerful businessmen spoke at length about a plan to end our recurrent local financial crisis.
He noted that sales tax revenues were in relative decline, thanks to Internet transactions and to the migration of big-box stores outside of city boundaries. He doubted whether city voters would approve any new taxes.
His suggestion: Sell both Memorial and Utilities. He argued persuasively that the city could net over $1 billion from the two sales, and direct the proceeds into a new foundation dedicated to funding certain city functions. He also claimed, somewhat less persuasively, that the sales would not significantly impact the local cost of health care or utility services.
In the first year, the foundation would provide $50 million in budgetary support. And that sum would increase as the foundation's assets grew. Imagine, he said, if that $1 billion endowment grew like El Pomar's, whose assets went from $17 million to $400 million-plus in three generations.
It's a compelling vision, in line with conservative belief in limited government, low taxes and the maintenance/improvement of public infrastructure.
Bach wasn't the guy who spoke that day. But could he pull it off?
Sure. All he has to do is wring efficiencies out of government, do something big that his predecessors couldn't manage, and persuade Kevin Walker, Rachel Beck and Chris Jenkins to put a new charter change before the voters, giving the mayor responsibility for city enterprises.
Oh yeah — and get the voters to approve the charter change and subsequent asset sales ... that's all!