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EDITORIAL: Colorado Springs succeeds by running like a business

By: The Gazette editorial board
July 9, 2017 Updated: July 10, 2017 at 11:23 am
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In nearly 4,000 words, left-leaning Politico tried to reignite the tired old media mantra that Colorado Springs represents failures of "right-wing" politics and running government like a business. It even dredged up the "Evangelical Vatican" label, which went out with the passé "People's Republic of Boulder" slight.

Politico's "The Short, Unhappy Life of a Libertarian Paradise" essay revisits our city's endurance of the Great Recession, questioning whether sound business principles work in government. It creates the illusion we toyed with business practices to our peril, then abandoned them to our benefit.

The essay explains how voters rejected a proposal to triple property taxes during the recession. Never mind that city leaders wanted more money just as unemployment was rising, the Pentagon was slashing budgets at local military bases and people feared losing homes.

Among the biggest advocates of the tax hike was then-City Manager Penelope Culbreth-Graft. A recent West Coast transplant at the time, she hadn't been able to pay high taxes back home while asking for California-style taxes in the Springs. Her former employer's credit union sued her for failing to pay on a $250,000 loan.

Springs voters wanted to avoid a hard-times tax hike they could not afford, which could have caused problems similar to those faced by their city manager. Politico didn't offer that context.

When the tax measure failed, Culbreth- Graft ordered a passive-aggressive campaign to get back at voters with gasp-inducing budget cuts sure to grab media attention. Politicos call it the Washington Monument Strategy, based on the federal government's penchant to close monuments and parks — to make the public feel pain — when pleading poverty.

Culbreth-Graft slashed bus service, turned off streetlights, removed trash cans from parks and deputized cab drivers to highlight cuts in public safety. Then she ordered the city's public relations director to alert the national media about the dangers of conservative tax policies in the Springs.

Politico accurately describes the ensuing national press fixation with the city's cost cutting but neglects to explain how the city manager engineered and publicized it.

The article correctly explains how the community rejected the city manager system in 2010 and created an executive branch, headed by a full-time mayor. Voters the next spring chose local businessman Steve Bach as the city's first "strong mayor."

"What he promised sounded radically simple: Wasteful government is the root of the pain, and if you just run government like the best business, the pain will go away. Easy ... people were inclined to believe he really could reinvent the way a city was governed," the article explains.

Politico conflates the city manager's assault on the Springs with the Bach "experiment." It transitions immediately from telling of Bach's election to explaining how "the city's experiment was fascinating because it offered a chance to observe some of the most extreme conservative principles in action ... The New York Times found a woman in a dark trailer park pawning her flat screen TV to buy a shotgun for protection." All because the streetlights were out, we are to conclude, because of the Bach experiment.

Here's the problem with that. The Time's piece published Aug. 6, 2010. Bach was elected mayor nine months later, in May 2011, mostly because of darkened streets, unwatered grass, reduced public safety and bus service.

Among Bach's first orders of business, as a businessman in charge of City Hall, was restoring bus service, turning on streetlights and watering parks. No good business, he implored, would run without lights, transportation and a respectable landscape.

Politico further tries to confuse readers by crediting lit streets to new fiscal policies and resulting revenues. It declares "a lot has changed" in just five years, including revenues high enough "to turn those famous streetlights back on."

Just try to ignore the fact Bach ceremoniously turned on the last street light more than six years ago.

In Politico's ploy to disparage running a city like a business, the article traces the origin of our failed libertarian "revolution" to an email sent by Steve Bartolin, then-CEO of The Broadmoor, to the City Council. The email detailed wasteful spending and staffing in city bureaucracies, at a time the city could not afford the costs.

"My intention was more to inspire a new way of looking at government, much the way all organizations (private and public) and families must do now given the times," Bartolin explained in a subsequent letter to the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

Far from a failed experiment, the determination to run city government like a business became a whopping success. Fiscal restraint during hard times kept us from becoming another cautionary tale like Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta and other cities with populations oppressed by reliably high taxes and careless municipal spending.

Business principles saved and revitalized the Colorado Springs Airport and the city's Memorial Hospital system, each of which were in free fall under the old bureaucratic system. Municipal restraint kept people in their homes, out of bankruptcy and tax trouble, as they tried to survive unemployment, under employment and frozen wages.

Though misleading in defending the "Short, Unhappy Life" premise, the article ends with a twist. It surmises how Bach's reforms probably paved the way for leadership by a seasoned politician, Mayor John Suthers, in a recovering economy.

In part because we survived the recession by not spending money we did not have, voters said "yes" when Suthers asked for new taxes and retention of surplus revenues. They could afford to do so.

The article paraphrases Suthers crediting Bach for budget policies that helped "right" the city financially. It says most leaders in the Springs believe Bach's "turmoil" begat today's "harmony" under Suthers.

Colorado Springs stands as the envy of most other large cities in terms of key economic indicators. That is precisely because City Hall has been run like a business for more than six years under the strong leadership of Bach, Suthers and recent city councils.

Lesson from the Springs: Businesses and households should not raise costs during hard times. Neither should City Hall, which should run like the businesses and households that support it.

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