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Bach's next showdowns

City Sage



It was cognitive dissonance time at Mayor Steve Bach's press conference last week, when he announced a half-dozen, line-item budget vetoes.

Was this the same stumbling, inarticulate guy who launched his campaign for mayor last year? Was this the same awkward stiff who stuck timidly to the usual Republican talking points?

Nope. That was an animatronic robot, manufactured by one of Laura Maguire's high-tech startups. The real Steve Bach is a little scary — informed, confident and articulate.

Bach's vetoes were inconsequential, representing a fraction of 1 percent of the $225 million general fund budget. That's not even a rounding error, so why bother? None of the items were frivolous (except, perhaps, Lisa Czelatdko's unrequested $10,000 donation to one of her favorite causes), so why not throw Council a meager bone or two?

But why give them anything, when you can score political points, stand up for principle, and draw future battle lines that will only benefit you?

Council took the bait, overriding four of the vetoes. Council President Scott Hente crowed over the results, noting that "this is how the system is supposed to work." Maybe so, but by voting for additional spending that the mayor had deemed unnecessary, Council allowed Bach to seize the high ground. This is Colorado Springs — no elected official can survive in office if labeled a big spender. Councilors' spendthrift tendencies could come back and bite them in the next year, when Bach may propose drastic measures that they won't be able to effectively oppose.

Yet the next 12 months will test Bach in ways that none of his predecessors ever imagined.

It seems certain that the University of Colorado Hospital's proposal to take over Memorial Health System will be approved by Council in January and sent to the voters. If approved, the city will get a one-time payment of $74 million, and annual lease payments of $5.6 million for the next 30 years. That's a lot of money — and some Councilors are salivating at the prospect of spending the cash. As Tim Leigh wrote in an e-mail, "These funds will immediately be available for use in the general fund for any use ... public safety, the backlog of infrastructure improvements, investment in new projects..."

That's fine, but Mayor Bach may see this windfall as a resource to be husbanded for generations. He'd most likely prefer that it be used to create a permanent entity that would support health care in the city.

"What are we going to do when all the baby boomers retire, and lots of them move here?" he asks. "We can't rely on (other levels of government) to help us out."

Our august Councilors, by contrast, apparently would like to get their mitts on the dough and fritter it slowly away.

That's just one fight, and it may not be the most important one.

During the next year, Bach will introduce and implement policies aimed at shrinking the city's structural deficit. That means cutting expenses — and he plans to start by chopping the city's $3.6 million "meetings and memberships" budget to almost nothing. And that's not all; as Wal-Mart might put it, watch for falling compensation.

If that's not enough, we may see yet another "strong mayor" initiative on the ballot.

When city voters changed the form of government last November, they actually disempowered the mayor in certain vital areas. To comply with the charter clause restricting initiatives to a single subject, the measure left Council in control of the city's enterprises, including Utilities. In practice, CSU runs itself, without clearly articulated policies or an effective governing body. A new initiative could cure this anomaly.

Would the voters support it? Council might well oppose it, calling it a naked power grab by "Dictator" Bach. But so intertwined are the operations of the city and Utilities that dual governance doesn't work. If Bach can't direct Utilities policy regarding, for example, the sale of water to Ultra Petroleum for fracking or the development of the Southern Delivery System, he can't really lead the city.

Absent specific power to do so, he'll have to channel departed Mayor Bob Isaac, who famously exercised power that theoretically belonged to others. Jan Martin? Hente? Mayor Bob would have had 'em for breakfast.

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