Colorado Springs has been fortunate in that over the past five decades, we have had a level of city government that has always been at least adequate. Most of that time it has been quite good. For the Isaac-Makepeace era, one could argue it was excellent.
While city government has been adequate to excellent, it must be recognized the region has never been faced with real “challenges” requiring extraordinary levels of leadership. After all, we have the blessing of great scenic attractions and climate to guarantee a stable level of tourism to help place funds in city coffers. Since World War II, we have had a steady increase in federal dollars to add to city coffers.
In addition, the decision in 1945 by vision-filled civic leaders to buy the land occupied by Camp Carson and to give this land to the Department of Defense has led to a steady increase in military installations and the explosive growth of the defense establishment that Dwight Eisenhower warned would have the potential of dominating the economy.
Dwight was right. Military and Defense sectors have, and still do, dominate the local economy to the point local leaders have not been “challenged” to develop sources of revenue to sustain local government. A level of complacency set in — with stable revenues guaranteed — that allowed for no active and aggressive policies toward attracting a stable base of civilian sector employment. In fact, from 1997 through 2007, the region lost 22,400 civilian sector jobs that resulted in $1.6 billion being removed from the local economy.
Leading into change
During the Lionel Rivera reign, there was a slight decline among the public in trust and confidence along with external conditions that led to the passage of the council-mayor form of government. It was a change brought forth as a means to deal with “government by committee” that was not meeting the economic challenges of the region.
The council-mayor form of government was the great hope that a strong, capable chief executive, given broad powers, would be the CEO of a vastly improved city government that would revitalize the region through innovative cost-cutting measures and bring a new level of economic development.
Since renamed: economic vitality.
We elected our first “strong mayor,” a good and decent man with established goals, vision and dedication to make things happen. And the mayor had vision. He was the first to recognize the serious depth of our true financial decline and the potential the region could be insolvent by 2017.
We also had our first “strong mayor” with a serious deficiency in the area of public relations — and less-than-satisfactory skills that bring forth the level of collaboration and cooperation needed to achieve his goals.
Now, we are seriously challenged to the point we need to consider helping the mayor accomplish his major goals and to move out of office leaving behind a legacy for which he will be admired and respected.
A bigger proposition
This is not a one-man job. It must be a community effort. Each of the past few years our civic leaders have traveled to other cities — cities doing well — to find out what makes those cities successful, thriving and prosperous. The reports coming back (very little actual “reporting”) say that the key has been:
Collaboration and cooperation. Works for them.
The failure to achieve a level of collaboration, cooperation and public support for public policy — i.e., stormwater as a prime example — has left us with the following challenges:
• A region not well regarded by major national job-creating firms to the point they will not move to the region; a fact so well-recognized that local economic development practitioners have all but given up trying to create jobs through that segment.
• A region 62 percent dependent upon the federal government for income revenues through active-duty military, defense-sector spending, military-government retiree income — and veterans on federal benefits.
• A city that is unable to keep young professionals or attract new ones.
• And the real challenge, a city known and being recognized nationally as one that has relatively unstable local government with a reputation of being so “ultra-conservative” that we cannot even meet our basic infrastructure needs.
Case in point: stormwater
This may be more critical than we think: The failure to have our mayor work in a collaborative manner with the other regional government entities and to work with the public’s expressed desire to deal with stormwater carries great risk.
First: “Water coming in.” It threatens creation of the water supply we will need for the long-term future. Pueblo city and county officials are ready to initiate a lawsuit to halt the Southern Delivery System if we do not have a plan in place in November to deal with stormwater and floodwater control infrastructure.
Second: “Water going out.” It threatens the economic strength of local business from Green Mountain Falls to Fountain by not proactively working to deal with storm and flood waters.
Third: “Money coming in and going out.” We face a continuing decline in money coming in to provide added employment and an increase in money going out for expenses due to inflation and growing demand.
The real problem: We have a shrewd and cautious public, which has passed measures at the ballot box to ensure that taxes are not indiscriminately raised — to the point it stifles investment. We have voters who have shown since 1968 they will turn down just about any tax measure with funds going to a “general fund”: 24 out of 28 measures defeated.
That same public has shown it will approve measures that relate to public safety if the case is made for a real need and that funding will go to well-defined and targeted objectives.
Mayor Bach is now faced with a crucial decision: He can prove to be that one leader who reached out to other entities, and to the public, and be that real leader who brought forth collaboration and cooperation to solve stormwater management and funding problems.
The measures he will bring forth to fund the city’s critical-need items recognize that we have spent 30 years wearing out endless pairs of boots kicking cans down the road to the point where we have almost $7 billion in regional funding needs with no revenue stream. And now we need to buy a new pair of boots, man up, wade into the water and try and find the valve that will refill the revenue pond.
In polling since February 2013, the public has been most clear: They want stormwater handled on a “regional basis.” They want stormwater funded by a dedicated revenue stream for storm and flood control only, not part of a general fund expenditure set of “maybe money.” And they want this issue managed by professionals with no political interference or infighting as we have seen the past three years.
Further polling has indicated the public is not willing, at this time, to consider a massive regional general obligation revenue bond to solve all city issues.
The net result of continued recalcitrance on the part of the mayor, who has insisted on a “city only” approach to stormwater, places each of us at great risk. We could lose it on stormwater in November and never get a chance to go back to the well, with public support, to deal with infrastructure decline that is harming our economic well-being.
What needs to happen
If we as a public body, and those within the business community, can find a way to convince local leaders that the people have stated what they will accept — and what they will not — this can be the key to voter approval of a stormwater funding measure.
If we do not, we run the risk of having no solution as the public (the “real money” power silo) has no interest in the mayor’s planned proposal.
By working with the public and the business community, Mayor Bach has the opportunity to come forth as that one leader who “broke the mold” and ended the political gamesmanship that impedes local economic development and brought the community together to solve our greatest and most immediate need.
If we are able, working collaboratively, to solve this one issue, it sets the stage to rebuild public faith in local government competence and lays the groundwork for a team to be created to work over a three-year period to craft a funding pathway to fund future needs.
Mayor Bach, the ball is in your court. This is a golden opportunity served up on a silver platter to be that one leader who was able to bring about the level of collaboration and cooperation the region has needed for decades.
We need you to step up to the plate and hit a home run and support the regional approach to stormwater!
Richard D. Wehner is a retired business owner from Fort Worth, Texas, who has been spending summers in Colorado Springs since 1955. Since 2002, he has been a strong advocate promoting the concept of “Regionalism — Cooperation — and Coordination” for the local area through his advocacy organization: SpringsUnigroup.