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Pain management

With optimism in short supply, Penny Culbreth-Graft preps for budget surgery

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This is more than the challenge she expected when she moved here last year.

By the time the ink dries on the 2010 budget, the city may well have made $71 million in cuts since City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft came on board 18 months ago. That's out of a budget that was $237 million in 2008.

"It is so different from anything I've ever experienced," she says in a Monday interview.

"The only alternatives that we as a community have is to be something different than what we were yesterday. No one knows what it's going to look like. A lot of us are fearful. But when you talk about being on the edge of greatness, that's when greatness comes, when everything looks hopeless and you think you have no alternatives."

This is the only statement of optimism Culbreth-Graft has to offer, a blind hope that something might fall out of the sky and spare her the dirty task of tearing our city end to end this November.

And of course, she isn't counting on a miracle.

Soon, she says, the city as we know it could be gone. If the economy doesn't improve in coming years, Colorado Springs won't be able to provide parks, buses, road repair or community centers. "The city" will be police and fire. That's it.

It's a real possibility as revenues decrease and deadlines for huge, unavoidable financial obligations — like making $7.5 million in legally required environmental improvements to the Pikes Peak Highway and filling pension funds — loom in 2011. Culbreth-Graft says even if economic recovery comes, 2011, 2012 and 2013 will be bad years for the city.

She's ready to write herself out of the budget if it comes to it.

"That is not a proposal we're looking at at this point," she says. "But I think the point is, we have to look at every alternative we have with the revenues we have today."

Sobering math

Culbreth-Graft is just beginning the budget process to mend a $23.7 million shortfall, working with department heads to decide what could go first, and what could and should be saved. Parks, recreation and transit will likely be heavily hit, but unless new taxes, fees or federal or state funds come rolling in, even the police force could feel the pain.

"I don't have the capacity available to avoid cuts to public safety," she says.

Layoffs have fixed past shortfalls, but that won't work this year.

Out of about 1,800 city employees, more than 1,200 are in the police and fire departments, areas City Council has been loath to touch in the past. Public safety is larger and richer than all the other city departments combined, which together account for 600 employees and $52 million general-fund dollars.

But that doesn't mean the city can simply execute those smaller departments and be done with it. Police and fire need support services like payroll and technology. Other services, like snowplowing or code enforcement, might qualify as public safety services. Meanwhile, employees are needed to perform services mandated by law, such as elections.

Right now, Culbreth-Graft is meeting with department heads in preparation for an Aug. 10 presentation to Council. But already she knows some police and fire cuts will be part of the preliminary plan.

"The math doesn't add up," she says. "It can't add up. So, where do you go? The whole organization is emphatically going to be impacted one way or the other. There's no way around it."

Got money?

OK, maybe there are ways. Council could adopt some new fees, voters could approve new taxes in November, or the city and El Paso County could find ways to share services, saving both some dough.

And there's something Council almost certainly will do to shrink its deficit: eliminate $9 million in planned raises for employees. That automatically reduces the gap to $14.7 million.

Or so it would seem.

Unfortunately for Council, the projected gap appears to be growing. May sales and use tax figures were down 14.38 percent from a year before, a depressing sign that means revenue projections need to be adjusted downward.

Let's assume Council pops the wage package right away. With the new projections, the gap won't necessarily be a more manageable $14.7 million. In fact, it's more likely to be around $20 million. And since the downtrend effects the 2009 budget, too, Council is also facing yet another shortfall this year, likely around $3 million.

Which leaves Council about where it started — with a $23 million hole.

"We're not seeing recovery in our numbers at all," the city manager says. "We've tried to be optimistic for a lot of years, but ... we're beyond right-sizing into decimating. And when you're at that level, the problem is that when recovery does occur, you've lost your edge. You've lost your capacity to recover."

stanley@csindy.com

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