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The state of the city: 'People are not happy'



Stuck with weedy medians, darker streets, rising utility bills and high unemployment, residents aren't very chipper about the way things are going in Colorado Springs. Nor would they be excited about having Mayor Lionel Rivera in office four more years. But they do want to hang onto Memorial Health System.

In a poll commissioned by the Independent, nearly half of respondents — 47.3 percent — say things locally are moving in the wrong direction. Only 29.3 percent say we're heading in the right direction, while 16.3 percent have mixed feelings. (Seven percent declined to answer.)

The poll, conducted in the first week of September by Springs-based national survey company Luce Research, questioned 600 county voters who cast ballots in the November 2008 and/or April 2009 elections. Two-thirds of respondents live within the Springs, one-third outside city limits.

"Our findings will differ by no more than 4 percent in either direction from the results had every eligible voter been surveyed," pollster Ken Luce says.

For the local business community, pessimism about the city is rooted in the anemic national economy.

"I would have been shocked if people had said Colorado Springs is heading in the right direction, when they know what's going on nationally and globally," says Mike Kazmierski, chief of the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp. "They're thinking in a broader context."

Dave Csintyan, president and CEO of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, says some local businesses feel the economy is starting to turn the corner, but credit remains frozen, stalling expansion: "The single biggest factor is fear of the unknown going forward."

The outlook could help those pushing a strong-mayor ballot issue.

"People are not happy," says Rachel Beck, who's promoting the measure. "Our initiative won't fix everything that's wrong with city government — having a strong mayor won't fix the economy — but it will fix the basic things wrong, the structure, and we think that will lead to better things for the city."

For example, she says, the $96,000 annual salary would draw better candidates than the current $6,250.

Who the mayor is might make a difference. Lionel Rivera is barred from a third term by term limits, but even if he could run again, only 26 percent say they'd vote for him.

The hunger for change doesn't extend to Memorial Health System. A clear majority — 59 percent — wants to keep the city-owned system, whose ownership and governance are being analyzed by a Council-appointed panel. Only 18 percent favor selling the hospital; 22 percent were unsure.

But after respondents learned state law requires proceeds from a sale be spent only on health care, 37 percent wanted to sell and only 44 percent wanted to retain Memorial. The poll didn't ask opinions about Memorial's recent pitch to become a stand-alone nonprofit.

Health care consultant Steve Hyde, who resigned in May from the panel, says the poll suggests voters distrust how Council would spend proceeds.

"It also may be the people who changed their votes realized that selling it may allow the community to double-dip," he says. "Suddenly, it has a new source of funding for health care while still having a functioning hospital."

Memorial CEO Larry McEvoy sees the results differently: "What I hear the public saying is, 'We value Memorial being here as part of the community.'"

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