Self-Reliance and Tight Budgeting Got Colorado Springs Through the Recession

Sometimes it takes an outsider's perspective to point out to people the reality that's around them. So it is with Canada's National Post, which surveyed the troubled behemoth to its south, and found an example of Americans responding to recession-shriveled tax revenues and government services by boldly doing stuff for themselves.

As Post scribe Kathryn Blaze Carlson writes, the recession sort of left Colorado Springs in the crapper:

More than a third of the city’s 24,512 streetlights went dark. Some 393 trash cans were removed from 128 neighbourhood parks. Public drinking fountains ran dry and park bathrooms were locked. Buses stopped running at 6:15 p.m. and pools shuttered. Irrigation at city parks was ramped down, yielding thirsty, yellowing, brittle grass. Roads deteriorated into a Swiss cheese of potholes and crumbling curbs.

This was Colorado Springs circa spring 2010. The mountain town was still reeling from the recession, its coffers hit by a steep decline in the sales tax revenues it depends on so heavily. The government was spending more than it was bringing in, it had too many employees, and it was being drained by an unsustainable pension scheme.

And by virtue of how it has handled its fiscal crisis, the city lived up to its reputation as a tax-wary, libertarian outpost in the American frontier.

This is a mainstream media piece using the word "libertarian," so we should assume that Colorado Springs residents responded to hard times by resorting to cannibalism and emulating the plot of Road Warrior, right? Not so much. Actually, residents voted down onerous tax hikes that would have been spent on politician-preferred priorities in favor of paying for or providing their own services.

When the lamps illuminating Ralph Kelly’s street were switched off, he and his neighbours together paid the city about $100 to “adopt” a streetlight and reignite a shared bulb. There was also an “adopt a trash can” program, where the city supplied the bin but residents hauled the garbage to privately run participating dumpsters.

The phenomenon extended beyond people's immediate neighborhoods, too.

[W]hen the government shut off the landmark fountain in America the Beautiful Park three years ago, non-profits and residents banded together to raise $25,000 to keep it flowing. When the city considered closing the innercity’s Westside Community Center, the Woodland Valley Chapel offered to manage it with only limited municipal support. That partnership, and others like it, continues to this day.

When the police force was slashed and Chief Pete Carey “needed to get innovative,” as he put it in an interview, volunteers became community service officers. They cost 60% less than police officers and can respond to non-injury traffic accidents or even burglaries so long as the thief has left the scene.

A local businessman also formed the City Committee to pore over the municipal books. Not surprisingly, committee members found that spending was nonsensical and wasteful and had Colorado Springs on the road to near-term insolvency.

Carlson does point out that not every neighborhood so effectively filled in the gaps. Residents in poorer areas weren't able to so readily step-in. This certainly, to some extent, represents fewer resources on which to draw to replace tax-funded services. You don't pay $100 to light a street lamp if you don't have it. I have to wonder, though, whether it might not also represent some of the differences in priorities and habits that help to keep people in poverty. It doesn't cost much to haul your own trash — that's actually a popular money-saver in my neck of the woods — or to clean and patrol your own streets. But the article doesn't give enough information to draw firm conclusions on the matter.

Colorado Springs, now recovering, has apparently maintained many of the cost-saving practices it adopted from necessity. The city has also tightened its budgeting practices, including adopting zero-based budgeting, under which budgets have to be freshly justified every year instead of being based on the previous year's numbers.

To judge by the very interesting piece in the National Post, our friends in D.C. might want to spend some of their seemingly endless junket time on a fact-finding mission to Colorado Springs. Oh, yeah. And then actually implement what they learn.

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  • Hugh Akston||

    When the police force was slashed and Chief Pete Carey “needed to get innovative,” as he put it in an interview, volunteers became community service officers. They cost 60% less than police officers and can respond to non-injury traffic accidents or even burglaries so long as the thief has left the scene.

    That's all well and good, but without budget increases for the police, who is going to shoot CoSprings' many dogs? Who is going to brutalize its homeless people? Who is going to kick in the doors of its slumbering citizens in the middle of the night and injure its children with flashbangs? Who is going to investigate these incidents and conclude without fail that the officers use of overwhelming force was not only wholly justified, but also remarkably restrained given the situation?

    Who, I ask you?

  • flye||

    Here's who:

    I want you to round up every vicious criminal and gunslinger in the west. Take this down. I want rustlers, cut-throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    I just heard of Colorado Springs doing something stupid like yesterday, but I can't remember what it is.

  • anon||

    volunteers became community service officers. They cost 60% less than police officers and can respond to non-injury traffic accidents or even burglaries so long as the thief has left the scene.

    This needs to be posted in every fucking town in the country. There's absolutely no need to have a cop that's paid 60k a year to shoot dogs to come and write up a report on some kid's stolen ipod.

  • sarcasmic||

    They write reports? I thought they nodded and said "Uh huh" a lot while writing their shopping list on their notepad.

  • Brett L||

    Its not always true. I called one about a car breakin about a year ago, and while the deputy was at my house, about 4 other people in the neighborhood driving to work (I live at the front corner) stopped to report they'd been victims, too. No dogs were shot, the deputy was polite and professional, and I even got a followup call from a detective.

  • Tim||

    But most kids have dogs...

  • fish||

    Self-Reliance and Tight Budgeting Got Colorado Springs Through the Recession....

    That's just crazy talk I tells ya!

    Krugman out.......!

  • Tim||

    "You think you're tough for eating beans every day? There's half a million scarecrows in Denver who'd give anything for one mouthful of what you got. They've been in recession for about three months. They live on rats and sawdust bread and sometimes... on each other. At night, the pyres for the dead light up the sky. It's medieval. "

  • Restoras||

    From the original. Nice.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    "There was also an “adopt a trash can” program, where the city supplied the bin but residents hauled the garbage to privately run participating dumpsters."

    This is the whole problem with streets being called "public property" rather than treating them as the private property they started out as. If you have a store that fronts a street, and you don't want people littering all over it, put your own god damn trash can out front and empty it in to your own dumpster. Same with street lights: Put one out yourself if you want your business to be inviting at night.

  • Hugh Akston||

    But if they were private property, then no one would ever be able to go anywhere. We'd be a nation of 300 million prisoners in our own homes.

  • T||

    Like that matters to a bunch of basement dwelling shut-ins like us.

  • Brett L||

    Sometimes I hang out in a friend's basement. You know, on Magic night.

  • Rasilio||

    Wait, people still play Magic?

    Where I havn't been able to get my fix in years. It's been so bad I had to get my kids hooked just so I could have someone to play with.

  • Sam Grove||

    There's a lot of foot traffic on the privately owned Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.

  • Juice||

    You think people will use a trash can because there's one sitting within a few feet of them? I guess you've never been to DC.

  • Christina||

    But it is not that people here are heartless ideologues unwilling to spread some of the wealth to help the poor, it is just that they would rather donate their money and volunteer because they do not trust the government to spend their tax dollars wisely.

    Though this paragraph warmed my heart, reading further into the article it's clear that Colorado Springs only trimmed its budget around the edges.

    It has axed dozens of government positions, moved to a “use it or lose it” policy on vacation days and sick pay, and dipped its workers’ compensation pay-outs to 85% of the employee’s salary. It is outsourcing park maintenance to private contractors, ramping up volunteer hours by 60,000, and replacing 10% of park grass with drought-tolerant plants and shrubs to reduce watering costs.

    This is all a positive trend, but it isn't enough. The city was using 70% of its spending on payroll and merely 'axed dozens of government positions.' As a veteran of government budgeting I can tell you that cutting a position does not necessarily mean you have decreased your payroll. Governments always add new positions into their budgets, so when they cut a position, it just means they won't hire someone new, not that anyone is getting a pink slip.

  • Lord Humungus||

    It's a lovely city - of course I can only remember the Garden of the Gods.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    residents voted down onerous tax hikes that would have been spent on politician-preferred priorities

    I'm going to go out on a limb and assume the enlightened progressives at my alma mater were horrified by this antediluvian rejection of their communitarian ideals.

  • box_man||

    Problem is Colorado Springs isn't as "libertarian" as they pretend to be. They suck the government teat with the Air Force Academy, Fort Carson and two nearby air force bases supplying residents and your tax dollars to support them.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Space Command!

  • ||

    You don't pay $100 to light a street lamp if you don't have it. I have to wonder, though, whether it might not also represent some of the differences in priorities and habits that help to keep people in poverty.

    Or it might be that you don't have any shit worth stealing, or already have a guard dog, or otherwise have made a rational calculation that the street light was not the most cost-effective use of money to protect yourself.

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