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Looking into the city's future

City Sage


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Local government. County commissioners. City Council. Those are grim, dispiriting phrases. Think of last Wednesday's weather — wind, blowing snow, slate-gray sky, nothing to be cheerful about.

Now think of the sour, depressed reporters who must trudge to meetings, read useless media releases, talk to cheerfully evasive bureaucrats, and wearily kowtow to self-important pols. For us, it's always February.

It might be easier if Mayor Steve Bach were really the Vladimir Putin of Colorado Springs, a man whose slightest whim was law, and whose black-clad secret police would hustle off dissident reporters to a life of exile in the Society Islands. We could spend our time lounging on the beach, drinking bad island rum and reminiscing about fighting City Hall.

Too bad for us — we're stuck here, just as Bach is. The mayor has plenty of power, except when he doesn't. He can't do much without Council's assent and he's hemmed in by laws, regulations and interlocking bureaucracies (city, county, state, federal) that would have baffled Franz Kafka.

If Kafka were alive, he'd be a great hire for hizzoner, especially since 2013 promises to be an eventful, interesting and contentious year. He'd feel as does a kayaker on a wild river, when the roar and crash of the rapids are just around the bend.

• First rapid: oil and gas regulations, fracking, Banning Lewis Ranch's future. This is a classic Class III run (waves numerous, high, irregular; rocks; eddies; rapids with passages clear though narrow, requiring expertise in maneuvering). Despite Councilor Tim Leigh's sudden change of heart, whereby he jumped from ardent supporter to fierce opponent of proposed regulations, Council likely will pass them.

The question is whether Bach and Council can work together to craft an agreement with Ultra Petroleum. If Ultra wants to drill, it'll need water and a decent relationship with the city. What can the city get in return? More parks, trails and protected open space? If they ask for nothing and give nothing, they'll get nothing.

• Second rapid: Council elections, Class IV (long rapids; waves high, irregular; dangerous rocks; boiling eddies; best passages difficult to scout; powerful and precise maneuvering required). Six of nine Council seats will be up for grabs, creating nasty dilemmas for the mayor. He'd like a more reasonable (read: compliant) group, but should he endorse a mayoral slate?

Probably not — it didn't work for Douglas Bruce in 2011. Winning candidates usually portray themselves as independent thinkers devoted to their constituencies. Bach may simply let nature take its course — aided ever so slightly by the Housing and Building Association and the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors. There are no safe seats, no sure winners and no predictable outcomes.

• Third rapid: Colorado Springs Utilities / Martin Drake Power Plant, Class IV. The war over Drake and the cost of the NeuStream pollution control system has only just begun. We'll find out in 2013 whether the system can scale up from 20 megawatts to 100 megawatts, whether costs have been properly accounted for, whether the original contract was properly and legally executed, and whether it makes economic sense to keep a downtown, coal-fired plant puffing away for another three decades. If you think Bach, Council, Utilities and Dave Neumann are already at war, you ain't seen nuthin' yet. The first months of World War II were called the "sitzkrieg" (sitting war). As history tells us, the lull didn't last.

• Fourth rapid: Pension reform, Class V (exceedingly difficult, long and violent rapids, following each other almost without interruption; riverbed extremely obstructed; big drops; violent current; very steep gradient; close study essential). Unsustainable government means costs are increasing faster than revenues. The city's generous pensions to retirees, particularly in public safety, aren't affordable without big annual revenue increases.

Council and Bach have three options: Ask voters to dramatically increase taxes, drastically reduce benefits, or pray for a rip-roaring boom. The third option has been our default choice for decades, but our peerless leaders have to determine their strategy.

After the fourth rapid, who knows? We might see another Waldo Canyon Fire, an attempted sale of Garden of the Gods Park to Phil Anschutz, oil and gas drilling on the summit of Pikes Peak, or the closure of Fort Carson. Anything can happen on a wild river.


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