Dispatch from Colorado Springs

A Canadian resident learns what happens when the town council calls the bluff of the lower-taxes movement.

It is early October 2010, and I am in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on my way to a session about planning city budgets, at not quite six in the evening. The sun has just set behind Pikes Peak, and the dying light throws a purple glow off the mountain. This is the same luminescence that Katharine Lee Bates noted in 1893 when she lived here and taught English at The Colorado College—the same department and university that employ me now—and that she remembered two years later in her famous poem about majestic purple mountains and amber waves of grain. It is because of that mountain—America’s mountain, as it is sometimes called—that people come here, to see for themselves the inarguable natural beauty of this place.

It is a warm evening and I have the radio tuned to the six o’clock news on NPR. The news tonight is all out of Europe, where mass protests have erupted in response to sweeping budget cutbacks. In Ireland a cement truck blocks the gates of the Irish parliament to protest the repayment of bad loans. In Spain, it is the first general strike in ten years; in Brussels, a hundred thousand workers from an array of countries protest budget cuts and the European Union’s announced plan to implement labour market “flexibility”—a measure that will make it easier to fire government workers.

It is the same impulse to grab the reins of public policy—and a similar experience of scarcity—that has prompted Leadership Pikes Peak, a local nonprofit, to organize the session tonight. Community leaders, academics like myself and other interested parties have been invited to attend a kind of workshop in which participants will have the opportunity to experience for themselves the kind of dilemmas faced by today’s mayors and city councilors when confronted by decreasing tax revenues and increasing operating costs. Tonight, we learn, is going to be a kind of trial run for a module the organization wants to take out into the community in order to raise awareness in voters’ minds about what is behind, and the reasons for, ballot initiatives that try to raise taxes. Convincing the residents of Colorado Springs that a tax increase might be in their best interest will not be an easy task, and the resistance Leadership Pikes Peak expects to encounter is registered in the disarming, tongue-in-cheek name of tonight’s session: “So You Think You’re Smarter Than a City Councilor?”

It is not a rhetorical question—simply put, there are a great many people living here who believe passionately that they are smarter than their elected officials. As some readers will already know, Colorado Springs is the heart of the conservative, anti-tax, smaller-government movement. Home to NORAD and NORTHCOM, as well as Focus on the Family, the religious wing of the Republican Party, the landscape here is studded with mega-churches and the headquarters of military contractors. Here, the nexus of American power is on full display, literalized in the landscape. It is also the home of Douglas Bruce, the conservative activist who authored and promoted the Colorado Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR. Ratified by voters in 1992, TABOR legislates that any tax increase that results in the increase of governmental revenues at a rate faster than the combined rate of population increase and inflation must be subjected to a referendum. This resulted in a significant decrease in real tax revenue, wherein we automatically pay less during a recession, but cannot be required to pay more in a more prosperous year without a vote.

It was TABOR, plus rising operational costs, that plunged Colorado Springs into financial crisis; and so, in early 2009, a decision was made by city councillors to go to the polls and seek approval for a proposed tripling of property tax that would have restored $27.6 million to the city’s $212 million general fund budget. The reasons for the increase were made abundantly clear, as were the consequences of a defeat—the unavoidable cutting of many social services that people considered part of the social fabric of the community. Public swimming pools would be closed and streetlights would be turned off. Trash would not be collected from local parks and the grass would be neither watered nor mowed. “Should this increase fail,” wrote the proponents of the measure, “the resulting service cuts will be deep and drastic.”

It is hard to say what people thought was going to happen, if they knew from the beginning that the measure asking for a tax increase was going to fail. I could not vote in the election myself, being a Canadian, and I had only just moved to the Springs. What I remember is believing that there was no way the measure would be defeated, but then talking to people about it—otherwise reasonable people who, despite having voted for Sarah Palin, despite beginning to attend yet another church founded by the disgraced Ted Haggard, seemed normal—and having it made abundantly clear to me that they would not vote for an increase in taxes under any circumstances. “We knew it was an uphill battle,” city councillor Jan Martin told a reporter from the Colorado Springs Independent, a day before the election, “but the important thing is people still have a choice … I still haven’t given up hope.”

The surprise was what happened next—the city government did what they said they would. Garbage cans were removed from parks and water was emptied from swimming pools. A third of all streetlights in the city were turned off. It was a matter of simple economics: these things cost money, and if the citizens of Colorado Springs were not willing to pay for them, that was how it would be. It was the shutting off of streetlights, perhaps, that garnered the most attention, the idea of a darkened city at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. “Public Safety: Lights Out in Colorado Springs” ran the headline in the New York Times; the Wall Street Journal called it a conservative paradise.

A year later, as I walk into the session on city planning, it is with the knowledge that the question is not how bad did it get, or when will things start to improve, but rather is there any way disaster can be averted. Mid-term elections—already widely predicted to be a Republican landslide—are just a month away and, here in Colorado, there are three new measures on the ballot that will, if passed, rend the social fabric of the state in a fundamental, perhaps irrecoverable manner. The first of these, Amendment 60, would require school districts to cut property taxes, leaving it up to the state to replace the education funds that would be lost. The second, Amendment 6, would prevent the state from borrowing money and would limit borrowing for local governments. And the third, Proposition 101, would reduce the state income tax rate and slash vehicle and telecommunication fees.

In short, the state stands to lose $2.1 billion in revenue and would be forced to increase school spending by $1.6 billion to make up the shortfall. Colorado would end up spending nearly its entire general fund budget on education—it would be a statewide, voter-approved recession.

As extreme as these amendments are, no one at the Leadership Pikes Peak session can be certain that they will not pass. It seems, to all of us, the kind of thing that could happen. And perhaps for that reason we throw ourselves into the scenario with which we are presented. We are asked to consider the case of the fictional city of Geyser Springs, a place that looks and sounds a lot like Colorado Springs. Revenues are falling precipitously and something must be done. We are given a series of scenarios to weigh and asked to make policy decisions based on them. Do we go to the voters and ask for a tax increase? Do we slash the police? Do we close down the parks? I find myself sitting beside Colorado Springs council member-at-large Randy Purvis, who was first elected to city council in 1987 and is one of the longest serving members.

“So,” he says, gamely, as we sit at our round table and weigh the possibilities, “what would you do?”

“I’d raise taxes,” I tell him. “But I’m Canadian.”

“Well,” he says, “welcome to Colorado Springs.”

“And what about you?” I ask him back.

“What would I do?” he says. “Are you asking me what I would do or what I did do?”

We get back to the exercise after that and the evening ends amiably. The simulation has been a success and has provoked some excellent exchanges, a real feeling of community. Even if the Springs supports all three disastrous measures, one participant assures me, it is the whole state that has to get on board for them to go through, and Boulder would never do that.

“Can I quote you on that?” I ask him.

“Boulder,” he repeats, not answering my question and moving quickly away from me. “You know, the place where Mork and Mindy lived.”

If you live in Colorado, you know by now that the three horrific ballot initiatives all failed and that the disaster that loomed so large on the horizon has not come to pass. Boulder, and Denver, came through, although oddly enough they did not have to: Colorado Springs itself voted solidly—overwhelmingly—against the proposed measures. And you also know that, in a mid-term election that was otherwise a landslide for the Republicans, Colorado remained at least somewhat Democratic, electing both a Democratic governor and senator.

Good news, perhaps, but still the questions remain: What happened to Colorado Springs? How bad did it get? What happened when the city shut down its pools and stopped collecting the trash out of parks? Did crime flourish in the now darkened streetlight-less streets?

The fact is that it is hard to tell. Or maybe it is just too soon to tell; there has not been enough time to accumulate the kind of hard data that would allow such an assessment to be made. What do the numbers say? The Colorado Springs Police Department reports that both violent crimes and property crimes were down last year, and that the murder rate dropped 37 percent. There were 15 homicides in 2009 compared to 24 the previous year. The crime rate is also well below the national average with 4.8 violent crimes happening for every 1,000 citizens, compared to 8.6 per 1,000 in cities of similar size.

It should be said that a great many people here have taken it upon themselves to care for and maintain the public spaces and institutions that the city had to abandon. They plant flowers on medians, undertake the maintenance of tennis courts and even adopt streetlights. For $75 you can adopt a Colorado Springs residential light and for $180 you can adopt an arterial light of the sort that lights up larger, multi-lane streets. During the course of writing this article I tried to adopt a streetlight myself, although I quickly found I could not adopt the light outside my home; this light has already been adopted. I do not know by whom, though, as the city does not reveal these things. Maybe it is one of my neighbours, or maybe it is some rich benefactor, a phantom Miss Havisham who has sought to keep my great expectations for Colorado Springs alive.

Some of the park grass is dead, but most of it is not. As an ecologist colleague of mine has observed, Colorado Springs is a desert-like semi-arid environment. Maybe there was too much grass to begin with. And the city is not inundated with trash; industrious Samaritans across the city have shown up at their local parks and taken the garbage home with them, and put it out with their own trash. Which, of course, is all privately collected. They are good people, these people. But it is hard to know how long they will continue. A year of taking home public trash is one thing; ten years of taking home public trash is another bird entirely. Residents in the Old North End, one of the wealthiest parts of the city, took it upon themselves to maintain the grassy medians that run down the middle of their tree-lined streets after the city stopped cutting the grass and planting flowers. The result is that they got to know each other—the tax cuts were, somehow, able to invoke precisely the kind of community those who wanted to defeat them tried to foster. Then again, the Old North End is, famously, the liberal pocket of the city—taxpayers there traditionally support tax increases. Often Republicans like to believe they have cornered the market on volunteerism, that they own it as a campaign issue in the same way they believe they own religion, but the impeccable parks and public spaces of this particular corner of the city suggest something different.

It is a story that ends with a bit of a whimper, I suppose—one lacking both a tragic conclusion and a happy ending. We will see what happens next. Only time will tell if concerned citizens—many of them the same conservative constituents who are consistently so adamant in their opposition to tax increases—continue to be so civic-minded, or if in five years time the parks and open spaces of Colorado Springs, along with the people who live here, begin to show the signs of neglect. Not long ago, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported that after eight years of conservative budget cuts the county’s per capita contribution to the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment has dropped to $4.49, one of the lowest in the state. Everything from full-time staff positions through to programs that include sexually transmitted disease surveillance to meth-lab cleanups have been cut.

Is this the shape of things to come? Perhaps. And in the past, perhaps, a story of this sort might have had very little to do with Canada. Reading it, Canadians might have shrugged their shoulders and shaken their heads at the ugly wrong-headedness of Americans. But something strange happened during the course of my writing this article—and that is the election of Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto. “Stop the gravy train,” he told voters, promising to hold city hall accountable. It is hard to imagine anyone being for a gravy train, of course, but the rhetoric sounded eerily familiar, the sort of platform Ford could have run on in Colorado Springs. What was new is the fact that such a platform was so successful in Toronto. Indeed, there was a time when Torontonians—when Canadians everywhere—might have shaken their heads at Colorado Springs. That time is over.