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Time to brace ourselves

Between the Lines

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Last week, what has become an annual ritual for Colorado Springs took place once again with the release of our city's Quality of Life survey results, pointing out the various strengths and weaknesses.

It's an admirable undertaking, especially now that we have five years of QLI data to dissect trends and project future directions. (Check out the full report at pikespeakqualityoflife.org.)

What the Quality of Life Indicators don't tell us, because it's not the study's intent, is what Colorado Springs' single most immediate concern should be. But that issue did come to mind when another public document came out last week.

We're talking about the proposed $224.5 million city budget for 2012, which debuts a new process this year. Instead of being driven by city staff, now it's coming to City Council from the new strong mayor. And as much as we've taken issue with Mayor Steve Bach during his first four months in office, it's only fair to confirm now that we do agree on something, even if it's not for precisely the same reasons.

We're talking about Bach's insistence on the city being ultra-careful with its projections for the 2012 budget. The mayor, besides being cautious with revenue projections, wants to continue building reserves, even if it means cutting nearly 40 positions. He'd also rather save more money than restore services that have been reduced or eliminated over the past four years.

Bach's strategy might not help tackle the quality-of-life concerns. It might not be what progressive elements of the community want to hear.

But we can't bury our heads in the sand and ignore what might be about to happen in Congress. That special debt-reduction supercommittee, with representatives from both parties, must submit its recommendations by Thanksgiving for how to reduce the national debt by at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. Given the terms of the agreement that averted a government default on its debt, if that committee can't get sufficient cuts passed through the House and Senate by the end of this year, severe automatic cuts will take place.

Either way, there's a growing prospect of potentially major reductions in military spending. And that could have huge negative ramifications for Colorado Springs.

It could mean further cuts at the Air Force Academy, which already is facing tighter controls on enrollment. It could mean less money for the Air Force itself, though the NORAD, space and cyber-related operations here might be fairly secure.

But it's different for the Army, which could be forced to chop its numbers and funding. All that recent construction at Fort Carson might come to a halt, and plans for further expansion could vanish.

And we're not even talking about the local military contractors, which gobble up hundreds of millions from the Pentagon's budget. Take away a chunk of that, and the shocks could reverberate throughout the Pikes Peak area.

Consider this: As the QLI report informs us, the area's top four employers are all directly tied to the military — Fort Carson, with 10.49 percent of the county's total jobs; Peterson Air Force Base, with 5 percent; Schriever AFB, with 3.38 percent; and the Air Force Academy, with 2.79 percent. That adds up to 21.66 percent of the area's employment, and it doesn't even count the military contractors.

We've heard for years about the danger of depending too much on the military to hold up the Colorado Springs market's economy, especially with thousands of manufacturing jobs having vanished in the past decade. The military influence hasn't been as much of a concern when the federal government has the need and the commitment to pour billions and billions into defense. Obviously, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought plenty of that support here.

But it's no longer a certainty for the years ahead, thanks to debt reduction.

So until we have a better idea of what's going on in Washington, it only makes sense for Colorado Springs to take a wary, safe approach.

Bach and many other civic leaders have been in D.C. this week for their annual group visit. My guess is that they'll come back with a grim, sobering outlook, convinced more than ever that this city should become more proactive in planning for life beyond such a dominating military presence.

And if that means a frugal city budget for 2012, we have to deal with it.

routon@csindy.com

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