Lean and Mean

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David Kidd / Governing

Provided they’ve got some spare cash to throw around or time to spare, residents of Colorado Springs, Colorado, have all sorts of opportunities to make their city a better place to live. They can adopt a trash can, for instance. They can even adopt a median, and maintain it with their own lawn mowers. If they’re feeling particularly munificent they can pony up to keep one of the local swimming pools, community centers, or museums open.

People can do these things if they wish, but the city where “America the Beautiful” was penned in 1893 can’t. Or won’t. Like most other American communities, Colorado Springs–a city of 420,000 nestled in the Rocky Mountains–has been hit hard by the recession, and a combination of revenue shortfalls and historically low property taxes ($55 per capita in 2008) has led to some serious budget wrangling.

In 2009 the city was staring down a $40 million revenue gap and a $700 million infrastructural to-do list, but even when residents were faced with drastic cuts to services, they voted overwhelmingly against a property tax hike. And so, as Zach Patton writes in the September issue of Governing, Colorado Springs’ entrenched base of tax-averse libertarians and conservative evangelicals has created a closely watched model of city management that resembles a civic version of the limbo dance.

How low can Colorado Springs go? Patton reports that the city turned off one-third of its streetlights, removed trash cans from parks, slashed funding to local museums and community centers, and stopped mowing street medians, which became so overrun with weeds that they violated property management codes. Evening and weekend bus service was eliminated entirely. The city flushed 550 people from its payroll.

Proponents of the cuts, of course, insist that residents will step up and take matters into their own hands. Critics counter that those municipal adoption programs and that can-do attitude are all well and good for folks who reside in the right neighborhoods (and tax brackets) and don’t depend on bus service to get to work.

It’s a get-what-you-pay-for arrangement, and as city council member Jan Martin told Patton, “The parts of the community that can’t afford services will continue to deteriorate. And the neighborhoods that can afford to pay for parks, trash removal, and medians will continue to prosper and be beautiful. I worry we’re creating a city of haves and have-nots.”

This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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