Policy

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

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Colorado Springs

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.