Public Policy Forum Blog

Never waste a good crisis

Faced with its toughest budget ever, Colorado Springs, Colorado, has made service cuts so severe they've garnered national (and international) media attention from outlets ranging from CNN to the Wall Street Journal. The stories have each been written in one of two ways:

  1. If taxpayers refuse to support tax increases, government will be forced to make draconian cuts in service. Colorado Springs is a warning.
  2. Quality of life does not have to be dependent on big government; certain services are best provided by the private sector. Colorado Springs is a model.

For those of us here in southeastern Wisconsin who are used to government services such as garbage pick-up, residential street snow plowing, etc., it should be pointed out that the Springs (I'm a Springs native, so I can call it that) has never provided that level of service. The cuts, therefore, are mostly in more basic city services. For instance, a third of the city's street lights have been decommissioned, there is no budget for street repaving, buses no longer run in the evenings or on weekends, firefighters and police have been laid off, city zoning ordinances are not being enforced in residential neighborhoods, and nearly all capital projects are on hold.

When the proposed FY 2010 budget was presented, residents of the Springs debated whether these service cuts were a bluff intended to get voters to pass a proposed increase in the property tax rate or whether there were other, less painful cuts that could be made. After the referendum failed (and sales tax receipts declined more than expected), the basic-service cuts were implemented and joined by additional cuts. The city no longer mows in neighborhood parks nor waters any green spaces; it has removed the parks' garbage cans; the city's museum, pools, and community centers are closed; and neighborhood services such as after-school programs, recreation programs, preschool, and senior lunches have ended as well.

When residents, businesses, churches, and philanthropists came to the rescue of some of these quality of life services (one community center is being operated by a church, grants will keep the museum open another year, volunteers are mowing parks and "adopting" garbage cans, and the U.S. Olympic Training Center is funding the recreation department), the storyline of Colorado Springs as a model of right-sized government was written. The Wall Street Journal quotes a city council member as saying: "We're a model of how cities can creatively adapt to budget adversity. You can have great quality of life without a great big government at the heart of it."

The point that's been missed in the media coverage of this budget crisis, however, is that these cuts are mostly reaping short-term savings only. The opportunity to bring attention to the city's essential role and mission hasn't been seized. Instead of debating whether or not to allow advertising on garbage cans or whether every third or fourth street light should be dark, shouldn't citizens be debating which city services are valuable and essential and which are not? Should the city operate a hospital? Should the city or the regional transportation authority be paving major roads and funding traffic improvement projects? Should the city have its own park system separate from the county's?

These big picture questions must be tackled to result in a sustainable budget over the long term, especially for jurisdictions with limited abilities to increase property taxes. The decision whether to mow, water, or clean-up the parks is not the same as deciding whether the parks are better run by another government entity with another revenue stream. If Colorado Springs is an object lesson for the rest of us, the lesson is neither "death by a thousand cuts," nor "death of big government." The real lesson is about a fundamental failure to balance resources with mission.

Anneliese Dickman