Tag Archives: Colorado Springs

True Budget Woes

9 Dec

It seems particularly appropriate that during our collective hyperventilating over chump change in the Erie County budget that we should seek a comparative example to show what true austerity and funding cuts look like. Welcome back to Colorado Springs, a city I last profiled in my Grass is Not Always Greener series almost six months ago.

To review, Colorado Springs is growing a rapid clip thanks to massive federal investment, high tech jobs, and a multitude of displaced Californians. Despite the tax revenue benefits associated with significant increased growth, Colorado Springs has found itself in one of the worst financial situations in the country. When Erie County Chris Collins wishes to not raise taxes, he cuts a couple hundred grand to local theaters. In Colorado Springs, the city parks budget is cut from $20 million to $3 million. And that is just the start.

Community centers and museums were shuttered and youth programs canceled. Firefighter and police positions were eliminated. The two police helicopters were auctioned for $158,000 each. One of every three streetlights was turned off. Bus service was cut for evenings and weekends. All street repaving was canceled. Park restrooms were closed, and city trash cans were replaced by signs asking citizens to take their trash home with them. Community groups and the US Olympic Committee (HQ’d in the Springs) stepped in to privately fund some cut programs. But far from all. In the latest bid, the city is looking to sell its healthcare system to an out of town company. Think Strong Memorial buying ECMC.

How can Colorado Springs be in such dire straits? PFM did an analysis that Colorado Springs collects $402 in tax revenue per capita from its residents, far below the national average. Denver collects $1008. In comparison, in Erie County we spend $1100 per capita on Medicaid alone. The tax structures are almost incomparable. Of course, so are the budget woes.  

The upcoming year looks a bit brighter, so the city council is expecting to add back in previously cut programs. First on the list: streetlights.  If Buffalo couldn’t afford its electric bill, we’d consider ourselves a national laughing stock, and for good reason.

The Erie County budget rhetoric will continue. Maria Whyte breathlessly proclaimed that funding to smaller culturals is self-evidently justified because it is an investment in the community. Such black and white logic begs for two rhetorical conclusions: we should cut funding to everything not an investment, and ignore fiscal restraints on other such opportunities. I look forward to Legislator Whyte’s recommended cuts to Medicaid (prolonging the life of the poor is merely a drain on resources – hardly an investment) and a $100 million renewable energy infrastructure plan for the county. It is an investment, after all.

If, on the other hand, you recognize that budgeting requires funding some things you’d rather not, and not investing in everything deserving of public dollars, then be thankful we are arguing over hundreds of thousands for theaters, and not millions for lights and cops.

High and Dry

16 Jul

A recent trip of mine to Colorado Springs reinforced once again how dysfunctional New York State is . . . and by this I mean the whiny citizens and over-stimulated special interests, not the politicians.

Colorado Springs is one of those places that is now bigger than Buffalo, in the new America where sprawltopian suburban growth is only outpaced by ever expanding city boundaries. Now the #46 city in the US (Buffalo being #70, when only counting within the limit), Colorado Springs has gotten fat on a steady diet of two seemingly limitless resources: federal jobs and displaced Californians.

As I have pointed out in other posts about booming southwestern cities, the free, libertarian states of the dry west don’t mind growing on the back of federal dollars and jobs. Already outsized benefactors of federal dollars (in the form of large infrastructure projects out of proportion for the population), they also have been the big winners of the Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. Colorado Springs is home to Fort Carson, NORAD, Peterson and Schriever Air Force Bases, and the new NORTHCOM. I have been to Fort Carson five times in the last three years, and each time I barely recognize the place, such is the pace of construction. As an illustration, in one small valley of the base, approximately $1 billion of new barracks, administration buildings, and maintenance bays have been built for the new beddown of one of the Army’s new Stryker units. And that is just one small are of one post. Now multiply by the other military posts in the region, and the effort to stand up a brand new agency and unit from scratch (DHS and NORTHCOM). And each dollar of federal spending brings construction contractors, large military and information contractors like GD, Boeing and Oracle, and all the hotels and restaurants to go with them. With all due respect to Representative Slaughter and the good men and women who work there, the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, with its $10 million of construction a year, is not the “jewel” of the Air Force. Places like Colorado Springs show what real federal dollars can do.

The other key to the growth of Colorado Springs is displaced and disillusioned Californians, with fat wallets from sales of their overpriced homes back in Orange County. It is not possible to overemphasize the effect white migration from California is having on the West Coast and southwest. Not only is California growing browner and poorer, ever unable to meet its basic financial obligations, but communities outside of the state have been forever changed by swelling so fast with disposable income. While that may sound like a good problem to have, ask those in Seattle and Portland (inundated with ex-Californians in the 1990’s) and Colorado and Texas (full of ex-Californians now) whether it has been a net benefit or not.

The influx of housing money and federal jobs has created an endless suburb on the prairie at the base of the Rockies, and the governmental and tax infrastructure can’t keep up. Which is where dysfunctional New York comes in. Our budget is still not completed, over 100 days late. The special interests, unions, and paid off politicians use Armageddon-like language to describe keeping spending flat, much less cutting the budget in any serious way.

Contrast that to Colorado Springs, which, to use but one small example, cut its park budget from $20 million to $3 million. No, not a $3 million cut. A $17 million cut. The city has identified several high profile parks to maintain, and the remaining 135 will be left to the care of 10 employees who will do what they can. In Buffalo it takes more than 10 employees to supervise an hour of parks work, much less get anything done. And the New York State legislature had a collective fit over $6 million in cuts to the entire state’s park budget.

There are two ways to look at this plan, contrasting it with Buffalo’s and New York’s budget situation. Either Colorado and Colorado Springs is completely out of touch with their role as government, and need to raise taxes or prioritize spending to provide services for their citizens (a la New York). Or . . . in the Great Recession, and faced with a huge budget gap, drastically cutting spending in parks is completely appropriate, and keeping taxes low will drive growth that will make the state prosperous in the future (a la Colorado, and much of the south and west). Do we have a simple liberal/conservative divide? Or a Present-Hedonism/Future Optimism issue here as well? As the jobs come back, and the economy improves (Reset or not), I think we’ll soon see.

(Author’s Note on the Grass is Not Always Greener Series: Noting that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, consider myself flattered. You’re welcome, STEEL).