Quick Hits 11-29-10

The meeting schedule is light this week because we have a rare 5th Tuesday of the month on which the City Council does not normally meet.  This gives me a good chance to catch up on some items that have been simmering for awhile.

Colorado Springs DIY Government

This article from Governing Magazine dates back a few months; and it features the challenges of a local government that has transformed itself – for better or worse – through a series of service cuts in an increasingly tax-hostile environment.  Some of the highlights from the article are as follows.

  • The per capital property tax in Colorado Springs is $55. According to the Tax Foundation, the Colorado state average is over $1100 (EGF is around $350, depending upon who is counting the population).  To be fair, Colorado Springs relies heavily upon a sales tax. Many cities (including most in our fair state) cannot impose sales taxes. One number does not do justice to an entire community’s tax structure. Nonetheless, that is an incredibly (almost unbelievably?) low property tax rate if it is accurate.
  • Colorado Springs has cut 550 positions (out of approximately 2000) in the last two years.
  • 75 percent of the remaining workforce is in public safety, which has also been cut significantly.
  • In public safety. property detectives have been cut by a third; and the police force as a whole has been cut by 11 percent.
  • Not a single police squad car has an in-car camera.
  • Several park facilities and pools were closed.
  • Many streetlights have been shut off; and there have been too many infrastructure deferrals to even mention.

One would expect a City Administrator blog about local government to bemoan massive cuts to services that most residents would consider “basic.”  To a point, one would be correct.  Some constituencies have been affected greatly by the large cuts in Colorado Springs.  And, there is little doubt that any organization cannot cut its workforce by 25 percent without huge ramifications.

However, the well-balanced article noted several positive results of the quasi-libertarian experiment.  First, many residents have report few differences in their city despite the dramatic cuts.  Some services may not be as “basic” as we proclaim.  Also, the author illustrated several examples of an increase in volunteerism in Colorado Springs.  When the city does less with less, individuals are empowered to work for services about which they truly care.  Lastly, the Police Department has not seen an increase in crime despite having funding levels far below its peers.  Colorado Springs is another anecdote that contradicts the oft-cited, but seldom proven, notion that crime rates are directly proportional to police funding.

Colorado Springs is a great analogy for the public sector version of “You get what you pay for.”  Residents strongly supported tax cuts even after they were warned of dramatic program cuts.  The city followed through on its threats with several program changes that most cities this side of Detroit have hardly fathomed.  There are philosophical discussions regarding the vitality of certain services, and about the general notion of redistribution of wealth through taxation.  But, by and large, Colorado Springs continues to operate, if not thrive.

At the conclusion of the article, Colorado Springs Council Member Jan Martin puts it best.

It forces you to prioritize and decide, what is the role of government?  And what services should the city be providing?

Since then, several media stories have shed further light on the experiment in “the Springs.”

Not all were happy with the cuts. http://www.gazette.com/articles/cuts-107128-dozens-council.html

The Police Chief warned of decreased service.  http://www.gazette.com/articles/police-107263-chief-going.html

And, several programs were restored for 2011. http://www.gazette.com/articles/budget-107528-services-programs.html

Confessions of a Recovering Engineer

Our friend, Charles Marohn, at Strong Towns provided this personal reflection of his experience as a professional civil engineer.  Some engineers, including our own, sometimes get a reputation for “selling” projects that some perceive to be unneeded or wasteful.  I find this assumption most often to be baseless.  Engineers, like most service professionals, are in the business of satisfying clients.  Public clients, by and large, are happiest when they build things.  The role of the governing body and staff, not the engineer, is to decline (or not propose) projects that may not be in the city’s best interest.

Nonetheless, Marohn challenges some basic assumptions that engineers often use to justify infrastructure projects.  In most cases, it’s not their fault, it’s how they were raised.   And, it’s how many of us were raised too. Kudos again to Chuck for challenging more of our basic assumptions.

Banned clichés for 2011

Can we finally put to bed phrase “do more with less?” For that matter, maybe it is time to retire “put to bed.”

Clichés: Every organization has them.  Many are universal.  Most get old.  With just over one month left in 2010, I have started to compile an impromptu list of clichés that our organization, and perhaps the world, can do without.  Some may have been apt once upon a time.  But, their shelf lives have passed.  I mentioned the first couple already above.  A  few more are below.  And, please feel free to comment on any suggestions that you have.  Or, you can e-mail your zingers to me.  Just keep ‘em clean; and make sure they’re recognizable.  The point of the list is that they are universally known, and probably largely despised (or at least overused).

“It is what it is.” I had a huge hand in creating this monster within my own organization. I certainly did not invent it, but I probably popularized its use here in a carryover from my former job.  It’s time to talk about things that may not be, but could be.

“Think outside the box.” Seriously, are people still saying this?  This has been squarely within the box probably since 1990.

“I don’t know, (insert former employee name here) always did that.” Well, it’s your job now, sir or madam, so please find out.

Corollary: “That’s not my job.”

“That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Yeah, enough said.

There is at least one cliché (and probably many others) that I will continue to employ with pride.  I still love this one.

When everything is a priority; nothing is a priority.

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