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Colorado Springs City Budget Markup Session: November 9, 2009

This is the first time I’ve been to a city council session and it was a rather enlightening process, if mostly to see what each member of council found most important and why they supported cutting or not cutting in certain ways.

The 1,000 foot view on the process yesterday is that the passing of ballot initiative 300 produced a $3.6 Million deficit in an otherwise balanced budget.  Each council member had redlined the budget to find $3.6 million and to approve or reject city staff’s recommendations.  They reviewed a list of expense and revenue recommendations each member proposed and kept a tally of the cumulative deficit/excess at the top as each recommendation was approved by at least 5 members of council.

Reviewing expenses first proved to be a bad idea since they ended up reversing many of city staff’s cuts and producing a $7.3 million deficit before they were even halfway through the expenses.  Most of the reinstated cuts were in public safety.  To keep things moving they skipped down to revenue where the biggest impacts were in salary reductions vs. furloughs vs. layoffs.  They argued so intently on these points with Councilmen Hente and Herpin refusing to consider salary impacts of any kind that they put the topic aside, finished out the list and took a break.  That was 3 hours in, so I ended up leaving at that point.  I’m sure we’ll see a report of what was ultimately approved which I’ll post when it’s available.

They did touch on many of the solutions that have been proposed from time to time to reduce expenses in the budget.  For example, Councilman Small briefly mentioned something to the effect of “…we know we’re never going to change the 4 man fire teams…” and Councilman Hente believes strongly that other municipalities pay their employees better than Colorado Springs does.  Small refuses to even furlough or rolling brownout public safety and  Councilman Herpin believes the entire idea of comparing public sector salaries to the private sector average is misleading because we (as a city) have a higher percentage of low paying jobs.  That’s not the message I get from almost every national survey that highlights our area’s high education, high level of professional jobs, and the like, but it outlines the resistance to these kinds of analysis techniques by members of Council.

The mystery of the moving headcounts came to light again as Herpin tried to understand the cuts proposed in Police.  The Police Chief said that they proposed cutting some specialty positions and moving those people back to patrol.  Then they talked about cutting Patrol.  Herpin asked about the impact of those specialists being moved in to Patrol and wouldn’t it offset some of the cuts.  Numbers were being thrown around that included vacant positions, recruits from the academy, and appeared to ignore moving the specialists into Patrol.  In my opinion, the Chief and his analyst never really answered the Councilman’s question, but the council ended up approving the full amount asked for by Police.

Councilman Gallagher brought up an interesting trend when he pointed out that Transit had 1 FTE from the General Fund in 2005 and now has 7.  Grants supported 9 FTEs in 2005 and now support 16.  Since most of the department is covered by grants and contracted out, he refused to support anything more than 1 person in Transit saying that if it could be done 4 years ago that way, it could be done again now.

There were other discussions on LART, Pikes Peak Enterprise (and the impact of ballot initiative 300), the fact that 70% of the budget is salaries, and a lot of talk about partnerships with the community over the parks.  When I left, the budgeted expenses stood at about $213.7 million.

Overwhelmingly, this process was a political one with very little cost-benefit analysis and a whole lot of “I think…” and “I’ve always believed…” statements in support or opposition to certain budget items.  It certainly begs the question: would cities be able to handle these challenges better if they were managed more like businesses?

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