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Bach's budget battle

City Sage



Now here's an opportunity that Mayor Steve Bach surely shouldn't have missed.

It's a three-day seminar on leadership for newly elected mayors nationwide, running from Wednesday to Friday in an East Coast metropolis. Three rookie Colorado mayors are attending, including Denver's Michael Hancock. It's free — all costs, including airfare, hotels, and meals are covered by the sponsors.

So, wheeeerrrre's Stevie? He's taking care of business right here, most likely because the good Republican voters of Colorado Springs might look askance at both the location and the sponsoring institute.

The sponsor: the John F. Kennedy School of Government (along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors). The location: Harvard University.

Do we want our fine, upstanding mayor consorting with those pointy-headed East Coast Democrat intellectuals? I thought not!

Seriously, Bach has plenty to do here, though he's not talking about why he didn't make the trip to Boston. Apart from showing up for events such as Tuesday's ribbon-cutting at the Venetucci Farm solar garden, he has to decide what to do about the city budget.

City Council is set to approve it on second reading next Tuesday, and then the fun begins. Bach can veto it in whole, or in part, or approve it as is. He'll probably find a couple of items to toss out, such as the $150,000 allocated for repairing various tennis courts, and it's doubtful that Council would try to override him.

The larger problem concerns the $1.5 million "contingency fund" in Bach's original budget. Council axed it with self-righteous harrumphing, calling it the "mayor's slush fund" and characterizing it as a sneaky power play by hizzoner. Bach was furious, and that battle might not be over.

But in a way, the fault was his. He made a rookie mistake: He was too honest.

In past years, city officials constructed budgets with millions of dollars funding vacant jobs, a de facto contingency fund, money that managers could shift around to fill unexpected needs without troubling City Council.

"Bless their little heads," the city manager might have said, "they've got enough on their minds. Why bother them with niggling little expenditures? A hundred thousand here, two hundred thousand there — not real money."

Bach ended the chicanery, and left himself without wiggle room. So the administration will have to spend endless hours begging Council to approve minor mid-course budget corrections. That'll make our essentially powerless Councilors feel useful, but it won't make for efficient, responsive government.

And that, after all, is why the voters chose this new form of government. They sensed a real difference between a figurehead mayor and a go-to guy.

The difference was apparent last week when I talked with Bach at a downtown coffee shop. When I wanted to find out what was going on at City Hall in the old days, I had to talk to a half-dozen Council members, the city manager, a few well-placed administration sources and a few private-sector smarties. By the time I was done, half had changed their minds, and I'd be back where I started. The system was opaque, with accountability diffused, and nobody ever seemed to know just what the hell was going on.

Things have changed.

I asked Bach about the recently eliminated DUI dragnet checkpoints and red-light cameras. His idea? Nope, he said, the initiatives really did come from interim Police Chief Pete Carey — but he made it clear that he fully supported both changes.

And what about all the departures of other holdover senior officials? Their choice, he said once again — though he didn't oppose those choices.

By next spring, we'll see a fully formed administration, staffed by folks of Bach's choosing. I'd be surprised if Steve Cox remains in his position as chief of staff; he was clearly an interim pick, named to help Bach navigate the treacherous shoals of local government. He's done a good job, but introducing the kind of change that Bach clearly seeks to implement requires a forceful, creative and cunning chief of staff.

Denver Mayor (now Governor) John Hickenlooper had Michael Bennet, Elvis Dumervil has Von Miller, Batman has Robin — so whom will Bach choose? There's only one obvious candidate, according to a very senior local elected official.

Tim Tebow.

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