Columns » Between The Lines

Heading for the wall

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If you tried to rank the Colorado Springs City Councilmembers in terms of bombast, Randy Purvis would not come close to topping the list. He's a well-seasoned, educated attorney, known more for a reserved demeanor and short, thoughtful observations.

As Council made final comments before voting on the city's completed budget for 2008, though, Purvis changed from his usual persona.

Others expressed frustrations about certain programs, areas and other details. Though they had worked as a group to hammer out the specifics, especially painful cuts in practically every department, it was clear the city leaders were not satisfied and, in fact, the final budget approval would only come by a 5-4 margin.

Purvis, however, showed far more emotion and verbosity than usual for him, and more than any of his colleagues. His biggest trepidation focused on how the Council had backed off from cuts in transportation/bus service while going ahead with reductions in public safety (police and fire).

But it soon became clear that Purvis' concern ran deeper. Much deeper.

"We are a train wreck, and we are about a nano-second from hitting the wall, to put it quite frankly," Purvis said. "We have revenue sources that are inadequate and expenses that are inadequate."

That "train wreck" already has started in the form of "derailments" for both the city and county governments, as they have dealt with sales-tax revenue shortfalls during 2007. The belt-tightening has been more immediately traumatic for the El Paso County commissioners, who have resorted to extensive office closures just to make it through the end of the year, with four-day workweeks planned for 2008.

But the city has major issues of its own, such as substandard pay for police and fire, nowhere near enough money to satisfactorily maintain city streets, and deteriorating infrastructure that will have to be addressed and modernized someday.

Those and other neglected priorities, during a time of economic slowdown, have squeezed the city and county. Yet, thanks largely to TABOR and the area's strange, contradictory obsession with cutting taxes while expecting more government services, the public hasn't yet grasped any cause for alarm.

Instead, we continue to hear from Douglas Bruce and others that government is too big and wasteful. That drives the other city and county leaders crazy, and now it's to the point where even Purvis is sounding off, and City Council is approving its own budget by a single vote.

Rest assured, both the Council and county commissioners know where this is headed. Unless there's a dramatic economic reversal, they'll be coming to the voters in 2008 asking for tax increases. Not for anything special just to make ends meet and do a better job in regard to such basics as fixing potholes and repaving streets and roads that are way behind schedule.

Their first choice would be trying to stop the effects of TABOR by freezing property-tax mill levies. Yet, as Commissioner Jim Bensberg said in a recent conversation, surveys have indicated area residents by a large margin would prefer a higher sales tax to messing with property taxes.

Never mind that property taxes are deductible, and most people who own property itemize deductions and could take advantage. Instead, people here would rather raise the sales tax, so tourists and non-property owners would share in the burden.

What happens if the voters don't agree? That's when our governments officially would, or will, hit the wall. That's when the City Council would have to give serious consideration to its last-ditch alternative: selling either of the city's largest assets, meaning Colorado Springs Utilities or Memorial Health System. And that's when the county might have to ponder merging some of its operations and services with the city's.

So the challenge is clear. Our city and county elected leaders, making sure their efforts don't conflict or overlap, must figure out how to convince constituents that if they want first-class government services, they really do have to pay for them.

Otherwise, that train wreck will become reality. And it'll cause more damage than many people could ever imagine.

routon@csindy.com

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