Columns » Outsider


Everything's for sale


Watching the city struggle with the new realities of municipal finance is not exactly an edifying spectacle. Just as the Bush administration finds it impossible to admit that the whole Iraq adventure was an ill-conceived boondoggle -- no WMD's, no al Qaeda cells, no gratefully liberated Iraqis, no Iraqi oil industry to pay for rebuilding the country, etc., etc. -- so, too, does our own City Council shy away from the obvious.

And what's so obvious? Consider that, for at least the last several decades, city policy has rested solidly on one central assumption: Growth is good. Growth brings jobs, growth keeps us prosperous, and growth must continue. Absent growth, the city'll die and wither away, tumbleweeds will roll down Tejon Street, taxes will go up, schools will close, businesses will flee, and we'll all go broke.

So what's happening right now? We're in a moderately severe economic slowdown but growth hasn't exactly stopped. There's plenty of construction going on, plenty of visible economic activity. Most of us still have jobs, despite thousands of layoffs in the high-tech sector. To all appearances, we're a prosperous, stable community.

But look at what's going on in city government. Next year's budget will, by all reports, call for actual job cuts, not simply a temporary hiring freeze.

As Daphne Greenwood's Center for Colorado Policy Studies at UCCS has pointed out, per capita city staffing/expenditures in key areas (e.g., public works) has fallen substantially in the last two decades. Moreover, the city is seriously contemplating selling assets such as the 100,000 square foot City Auditorium to Nor'Wood developer Chris Jenkins for a reported $1.2 million, or $12 a square foot -- just to raise a few bucks.

The bill collector's at the door. City services are likely to diminish significantly, and we're each going to have to pay hundreds of dollars annually in higher utility charges, just so we can have water, gas and electricity.

The direction's pretty clear, isn't it? Growth doesn't pay for itself; rather, given our present tax/fee structure, it imposes gradually increasing costs on government at every level.

Eighty years ago, when the City Aud was built, and for decades thereafter, it was easily affordable. Yes, affordable, though there was no city sales tax, and though the entire city budget in 1923 was funded through local property taxes levied on the 30,000 citizens of Colorado Springs.

Eighty years later, we're a city of almost 400,000 people, we still levy property taxes, the combined city/county/state sales tax rate is 6.4 percent, and the general fund budget is well over $200 million. And our leaders suggest we can't afford the self-sustaining City Aud.

Well, given the extent to which our council has been funded by the real-estate industry, you can hardly expect them to tackle the underlying problems of growth -- instead, they'll just play out the string, selling assets, raising fees, (streetlight fee, anyone?) and borrowing money off the books ("Certificates of Participation," anyone?) until the whole rickety edifice comes tumbling down -- hopefully long after they're out of office.

What this means, of course, is that if we're gonna preserve the City Auditorium, we need to get it out of the city's grasp. Talking to a few of the downtown players about the situation, it was initially gratifying to hear that they were appalled by the prospective sale. It was less gratifying to realize that they were appalled not by the sale, but by the price -- they wanted a chance to bid. After all, as one of 'em who refused to be identified pointed out, "People are asking $80 a square foot for downtown building -- $1.2 million for the City Aud??!! C'mon, that's peanuts! You could buy it, flip it and retire! One real-estate deal, and that's your entire career -- not bad!!"

So even if the deal falls through, there are plenty of potential buyers out there. And even if Council doesn't sell now, the pressures will continue to mount, and they'll sell later. Just as folks who go broke end up selling every stick of furniture in the house, so too will city government -- broke and desperate in the midst of prosperity -- continue its ongoing yard sale.

I've already heard from a lot of folks who are interested in getting involved in an effort to save the City Auditorium. The planning stage has begun -- next week we'll announce the time and date of an initial public meeting that will include representatives from the Historic Preservation Alliance to launch the process.

Meanwhile, remember this: Success depends upon numbers and commitment -- absent either one, we'll fail. And if we fail, you might as well call up Chris Jenkins and reserve the penthouse loft ...


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