Literature on the Strong Mayor Project states: "Colorado Springs' government is clearly broken, and it's costing us dearly."
No. The region is broken, not just government. Our fiscal problems are a wake-up call, one not to ignore. The Strong Mayor "solution" won, but it can put us back to sleep, making things worse. Colorado Springs has two major problems: urban growth and economic development.
Growth: Colorado Springs sells its product at a loss and tries to make it up in volume. City Council members often make decisions that favor growth interests and approve new projects based on a sometimes-genuine belief that "growth is good." Growth does generate taxes, but doesn't cover all needed infrastructure once developments are occupied. Look around. It's obviously true.
Addiction is doing what feels good short-term, but hurts long-term. In this case, addiction to growth. When national economic collapse halts growth, it's cold-turkey painful. When growth increases the load on infrastructure and government services beyond what growth pays for, there are moves to increase taxes on residents. Calls for higher taxes here have met a TABOR backlash. Does TABOR work? No. Fiscal problems are worse than ever.
That's because Council continues approving growth, generating more infrastructure needs not covered by taxes. Efforts to circumvent tax limitations included the Stormwater Enterprise tax — oops, I mean, "fee" — for infrastructure that should have been financed from taxes on those who profit from growth.
In business, people know they can't offer, all at once, lowest price, best service and best quality. Actually, they decide how they'll be unattractive to keep some customers away, to allow them to deliver their chosen value to their chosen customers. If they don't, the business fails.
Here's how the same concept affects regions: Given free migration, no place can long remain more attractive than any other place (where "attractive" is the composite of factors that attract). That is, people move here until Colorado Springs becomes as unattractive as any other place. Depressing, huh?
So we'll be unattractive ... how? Path 1: potholes, street lights off, degraded parks, less services (with low taxes). Path 2: impact fees and taxes (for quality of life). Clearly, we're on Path 1, killing the quality-of-life goose that lays golden eggs.
Economic development: It's arithmetic, not rocket science. A region fails when more dollars go out than come in. Our economic decline is from losing export companies and gaining import companies. Since 2001, we've lost over 53 percent of manufacturing and information technology jobs, businesses that export products and import dollars. Proliferating "big-box" stores import products and export dollars. The result: more money out than in.
Two other factors reduce tax revenue. 1. Export companies pay more. 2. We've lost jobs; since November 2007, 17,800 non-farm jobs (6.8 percent of the jobs we had then). Why the job loss? Largely it's the same export-import problem at a national level.
From 2000 through August 2010, the cumulative national trade deficit is $5.94 trillion; that's how much U.S. gross domestic product has been reduced by "free trade" offshoring of jobs and technology. Colorado Springs has lost 69 percent (9,300) of computer and electronics products manufacturing jobs since April 2001. It's been a high-tech, job-loss bloodbath.
What to do? Stop implicit subsidies for growth; make growth pay for itself with impact fees. Don't subsidize big-box stores. Subsidize, as necessary, export companies and companies that buy local; these bring dollars in and keep them here. Raise the pay of Council so those not backed by growth interests can afford to serve and attend to the welfare of the whole community. Don't sell off hospitals, parks and other community assets. This would only provide temporary financial relief and feed addiction to growth.
Quick fixes don't work. Don't think a "strong mayor" can fix our broken region. Won't happen. It will only make it easier for the growth interests that funded the campaign to control government.
Bob Powell, Ph.D. physics, MBA, is a consultant using systems thinking.