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City manager has it tough, too

Between the Lines

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Let's talk again about the Colorado Springs city government. And no, this isn't one more diatribe about Mayor Lionel Rivera's ethical issues or the still-unconsummated U.S. Olympic Committee deal. This is about the person whose job is to lead our city through its latest, fast-approaching budget crisis.

In her 18 months as city manager, Penny Culbreth-Graft already has battled through a relentless, damaging barrage of financial traumas. Time after time, she and her top staff have had to bring bad news to City Council about the necessity for budget cuts. They have presented our elected leaders with dire alternatives for making the bottom line palatable, and the councilors have worked like surgeons to avoid — or simply put off — the most dramatic outcomes.

Through it all, the prevailing mood inside City Hall has been hopeful: Let's do the best we can with our dwindling resources, and someday the economy will turn around. But it hasn't. Sales tax revenues have continued to lag behind even the most pessimistic estimates. Reserves are gone.

We heard from Culbreth-Graft in late May (and reported in "Got hope?" News, June 4) that the 2010 city budget would have to endure another estimated $23.7 million in additional cuts. (Funny how the Gazette treated this like a this-just-in, breaking-news story — on June 30.) But since that bombshell six weeks ago, the city manager has been silent and has not scheduled any interviews until later in July. Meanwhile, we've heard of city departments (not just transit and parks and rec, but also police and fire) beginning to assemble another death list of programs, services and people.

It's easy to figure out the most likely casualties, because of what we nearly lost the last time around: community centers, senior centers, youth and adult sports, City Auditorium and Pioneers Museum, weekend and night-time bus service for many (if not all) routes ... and on and on. We also hear public safety will be impacted more than before, though the specifics aren't clear.

City Council plans to put one or more issues on the November ballot, hopefully preventing a near-collapse of local governmental services. But if that effort fails, 2010 could bring a full-scale implosion.

Amid all this, we hear the city manager has her own frustrations, which could mean her days are numbered in Colorado Springs. Culbreth-Graft came here with an impressive track record dealing with municipal problems, making tough cuts while preserving important services and priorities. But she has told others that she's frustrated with City Council for not responding more quickly and forcefully to the deteriorating situation — and her repeated warnings.

At the same time, she's mentioned to city leaders that she and her husband have been unable to sell their previous home in Huntington Beach, Calif., and they can't continue with two mortgages much longer.

You have to wonder, if all else fails, whether one of Culbreth-Graft's 2010 job cuts might be her own. She said that much recently to a group of civic leaders.

On Tuesday, July 14, Culbreth-Graft will provide a summary outlook on city finances to civic leaders and organizations at a special "summit" to discuss the budget crisis and potential solutions. Beyond that, how the city manager handles the next few months could directly influence Colorado Springs' future.

We supposedly have a "strong city manager" setup, but Culbreth-Graft's style has been to offer options and let City Council make decisions. Councilor Jerry Heimlicher says he has no inkling of dissatisfaction with Culbreth-Graft, saying, "She inherited one heckuva mess and she's handled it well. I've admired her tenacity. If she were to leave, it wouldn't be because of her job performance."

Lately, though, many have suggested the time has come for change. Perhaps we should be like Denver, where the mayor and councilors run the daily operations instead of a city manager.

Are we heading down that path? Will the November 2009 election become an unofficial referendum on what kind of government Colorado Springs wants? Will Penny Culbreth-Graft be around to pick up the pieces in 2010?

Lots of questions, waiting for answers.

routon@csindy.com

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