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Return of Douglas Bruce, taxophobe

City Sage



It was déjà vu all over again when word came that Douglas Bruce was suing the city on the grounds that ... well, I'm not really sure. He's mad that City Council has access to snacks, mad that Councilors have expense accounts, mad that the city still collects a "payment in lieu of taxes" from Colorado Springs Utilities and mad, mad, mad that Utilities won't restore service to his vacant, derelict properties without a big upfront payment.

One such property on West Kiowa Street, which Bruce acquired for $9,500 after it was gutted in a tragic 1992 fire, has been vacant since. Call it a little bit of Detroit, the Dougster's present to the west side.

Bruce is not an economic conservative. He's an "anti-tax gonzo," as the Wall Street Journal once noted. He has not been a rational advocate for tax reform, but a predatory taxophobe.

After the passage of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights anti-tax amendment to the state constitution in 1992, Bruce was the most powerful man in Colorado. Since then he's done time twice; once as a Denver slumlord, more recently for income tax evasion. He was censured by his peers in the state Legislature for kicking a newspaper photographer.

But locally, his shadow continues to loom large. The city TABOR, incorporated into the city charter in 1991, is even more restrictive than the statewide version. He managed to kill off an existing half-cent capital improvements tax in '91, and defund the unpopular Stormwater Enterprise via Issue 300 in 2009. The latter was poorly crafted enough that it failed to deprive the city of its annual $32 million de facto Utilities franchise fee, but it has managed to worsen a huge stormwater drainage backlog.

Today, thanks to Bruce's power of persuasion, Colorado Springs may be ungovernable. Our combined capital and stormwater needs apparently exceed $1.3 billion, our streets are cracked and potholed, our economy stagnant, our young professionals headed for the door.

Bruce convinced voters they didn't have to keep existing taxes, much less vote for new ones. City officials were liars and louts, incompetent spendthrifts who ought to be put on a diet — so take away the money!

You've got to respect our city leaders, struggling to rebuild, reboot, repair and renovate. It's a difficult task. Council President Keith King and Mayor Steve Bach can't very well say what they must know to be the truth: TABOR is nonsensical. It has hampered growth, choked the economy and benefited no one. Absent TABOR, our conservative-driven Council could at least make rational economic decisions. We might not have to fire cops, turn off streetlights and stop irrigating parks when the next downturn takes place.

The city is 142 years old. It's like a 19th-century home — if you stop maintaining it for a couple of decades, you'll never catch up unless you win the lottery.

So we're stuck. Bach likes to warn us that the city will be insolvent in a few years unless spending is cut, but at some point we'll have to face the revenue side as well. Healthy city governments levy taxes that are adequate to support core municipal services. We don't — and thanks to Bruce, we may never do so. Instead, we'll limp along as usual, and maybe get caught in a deflationary spiral that will worsen as military budgets shrink in years to come.

That Kiowa Street property is one thing, but you could say Bruce is shaping the city itself in Detroit's image. Decades of mismanagement, the flight of productive residents and vanishing manufacturing jobs transformed the "Arsenal of Democracy" into the nation's basket case. What would we do if Fort Carson ever closes, our economy shrinks, and there's no way to fund a municipal rebirth?

Maybe we should erect a monument to Mr. Bruce showing future generations the glory of his accomplishments. On the base, Shelley's words.

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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