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Training wheels



At least three of them have been through this a few times before, and yet the experience offers little reprieve from the confusion.

In fact, at times it only seems to worsen the situation.

This is budget season, and Colorado Springs City Council is moving into uncharted territory under a new form of government. A few weeks ago, Mayor Steve Bach presented his budget to Council, after first meeting with the members in small groups to give them a preview.

Now, Council must examine the budget, listen to staff presentations and citizen input, make any amendments upon which five members can agree, and send the budget back to the mayor.

In the past, when the city manager prepared the budget, this was the end of the process. Staff amended the budget to Council's liking. This time, however, the mayor will have the right to veto the budget, or veto any line in the budget, then send it back to Council, which can override his veto with six votes.

One could reasonably expect a great deal of bargaining and pleading as each elected official seeks to get his or her way on items of particular interest — perhaps the staffing of soon-to-be-built Fire Station 21 on the city's northeast side, or the funding of extra bus hours.

But the red ink has to clear by Dec. 31, when the city charter requires a balanced city budget to be approved for the upcoming year.

At this point, it seems a completed budget is a far-off fantasy to many Council members, who are confused by the contents of the budget, as well as the process for amending it.

City Council President Scott Hente sums up his opinion of the budget process so far in one word: "frustrating."

As hassles go, lack of detail in the budget tops many a Councilor's list.

Council President Pro Tem Jan Martin was perturbed when she couldn't find numbers she had come to expect in the document, such as the funding allotted for each of four city community centers. While the proposed $225 million budget includes sections for each department, with general budget detail, it fails to show what is spent on specific programs or amenities.

So, for instance, Martin and her colleagues could see that $1.3 million was allotted for the 2012 civilian salaries in recreation. But they couldn't tell whether the money that goes to the city's Deerfield Hills Community Center had been cut. Other items, such as funding for the city's therapeutic recreation program, were listed, but were hard to find in all the small print.

"The budget that was given to Council was pretty high-level," Martin says, "and unless you knew where to look for specific information, like community centers or the Cottonwood Pool, you had to ask."

She wasn't the only one upset. In a recent meeting, newbie Councilor Lisa Czelatdko made no effort to conceal her agitation at not being able to answer her constituents' budget questions by referring to the document.

Fellow first-year Councilor Brandy Williams was similarly irritated.

"People have approached me saying, 'I'm concerned about our funding next year; I want you to make sure it's the same or an increase,'" Williams says. "But given that I couldn't find the line items for the entities that they came to talk to me about, I couldn't say."

Councilors have asked staff for more information. Budget manager Lisa Bigelow says that the information was not withheld intentionally. She explains that the document does not ordinarily list funding for specific programs and amenities because, "if we got down to every single program in the city, the budget would be 10 volumes."

Information about high-profile programs and amenities was included in recent budgets, Bigelow notes, because they were facing proposed cuts. Since those budgets weren't changing much this year, no information was included.

That explanation, however, doesn't fly with Hente, who says he doesn't like answering citizens' questions with "I don't know."

After Council learns what's in the budget, and decides what it would like to see changed, it goes through a process called "budget mark-up." This is when a Councilor will suggest adding money to a favorite cause, or cutting a despised one. Councilors must get five votes to amend the budget.

But here's where the understanding stops for many Councilors.

The veto process is brand-new, and Councilors say they don't know how it will work. Suppose, for instance, Council was to amend the budget to add $100,000 to park watering, thus bringing the park watering budget from $2 million to $2.1 million. If the mayor vetoes that, could he veto the addition of $100,000, or would he need to veto the entire $2.1 million park-watering budget?

If it's the latter, then what happens if Council doesn't have six votes to override his veto? Do the parks go without water until the situation can be resolved through a later budget amendment?

"Good question," Hente says.

"I don't know how it's going to play out," Williams says.

Councilors and the mayor will likely rely on the advice of new City Attorney Chris Melcher to resolve those questions and any more that present themselves in the budget process. Melcher, in fact, is already working to resolve this issue, but has yet to come to a conclusion, saying: "We are obviously going to be working toward a practical and reasonable method for both the mayor and City Council to be able to exercise their power over the budget."

Whatever those powers may be.

Mayor wants his fund

City Council President Scott Hente is particularly bothered by one line item in the proposed 2012 city budget: a $1.5 million "contingency" item listed under "general costs" for the city general fund.

— J. Adrian Stanley

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