Colorado anti-tax ethic leaves its mark on wildfire effort
The place where the Waldo Canyon fire destroyed 346 homes and forced more than 34,000 residents to evacuate turned off one-third of its streetlights two years ago, halted park maintenance and cut services to close a $28 million budget gap after sales-tax revenue plummeted and voters rejected a property-tax increase.
The city, at 416,000 the state's second-largest, auctioned both its police helicopters and shrank its public-safety ranks through attrition by about 8 percent; it has 50 fewer police and 39 fewer firefighters than five years ago. More than 180 National Guard troops have been mobilized to secure the city after the state's most destructive fire. At least 32 evacuated homes were burglarized and dozens of evacuees' cars were broken into, said Police Chief Pete Carey.
"It has impacted the response," said accountant Karin White, 54, who returned Thursday to a looted and vandalized home, with a treasured, century-old family heirloom smashed.
"They did above and beyond what they could do with the resources they had," she said. "If there were more officers, there could have been more manpower in the evacuated areas."
Since the start of the 18-month recession in December 2007, U.S. cities have faced shrinking revenue and diminishing state support, leading to budget cuts and reductions in services and workforces. Cities faced a fifth-straight year of revenue declines in 2011, according to the National League of Cities, which estimated that municipalities would have to fill budget gaps of as much as $83 billion from 2010-2012.
Colorado Springs, which depends on sales tax for about half of its revenue, was hit harder than most. The city - the birthplace 20 years ago of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which later passed statewide and has been pushed around the country to restrict government spending - became a high-profile example of cost-cutting. The law restricts government spending to the previous year's revenue, adjusted only for population growth and inflation.
"People are going to be looking at the aftermath of this disaster to see what is possible," said Josh Dunn, an associate professor of political science at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. "How far can you go in cutting the size of city government?"
The city, home of the evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family, is known for being conservative and libertarian. It "was the tea party before the tea party was cool," Dunn said.
Six of the nine candidates in last year's nonpartisan mayoral election, including the victor, Mayor Steve Bach, signed the no-tax pledge pushed by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.
Richard Skorman, one candidate who didn't, was flooded with angry e-mails after saying in a debate why he opposed such a pledge. What, he asked, if the city got hit by a major wildfire?
"Resources have been very stretched, and we were always worried," said Skorman, 60, a small-business owner and former city councilman who lost to Bach in an April 2011 run- off.
The costs of rebuilding combined with lost revenue from business closings and tourism could again push the city to the point where it doesn't have revenue for essential services, he said.
"It is really going to make it difficult to deal with these things and all the reconstruction and things that are going to have to occur in this community," Skorman said.
Bach said the city is on the path toward financial implosion anyway because of overly generous pensions and too many parks.
"Forget the fire," said the mayor, whose office has an easels with a chart depicting Colorado Springs's financial status, after a briefing on the blaze Saturday. "At our current cost curve, we'll be insolvent in eight years."
Bach said the financial situation "certainly has affected our ability to take care of other things like parks and keeping the streetlights on."
It hasn't affected the handling of the wildfire, he said.
The Waldo Canyon blaze has killed two, engulfed a 29- square-mile (75-square-kilometer) area the size of Manhattan, has cost $11.1 million to fight so far and is now 55 percent contained. All but 3,000 residents have been allowed to return home, according to the Incident Information System, an interagency effort to track and provide wildfire information.
Such emergencies are why Bach's administration has focused on increasing the city's unrestricted general fund balance, which is now at 17 percent, said Steve Cox, the city's chief of economic vitality and innovation.
Carey and Fire Chief Rich Brown said they are facing the same kind of cuts and budget restrictions as public-safety forces across the country. The reduction in manpower hasn't affected their ability to respond to the wildfire, they said in interviews this weekend.
On June 26, when near-hurricane force winds caused a firestorm that swept into the city, "I don't care if we had 2,000 people, there's nothing we could have done," Brown said. The city has 413 firefighters and recently graduated its first new class of recruits in five years, he said.
Carey said the staff reduction has forced police to work more closely with the fire department and other agencies.
"That's the emerging trend of public safety," Carey said. "We can't afford to have a surge capacity, maximum capacity every day for these kinds of situations. You have to think meaner and leaner, and have a plan that includes asking for outside help."
The city has been aggressive in applying for federal grants, too, which have funded wildfire mitigation efforts, said Bret Waters, emergency management director.
Dunn notes that the city, where there is strong anti- federal government sentiment, is now turning to the U.S. for assistance. Before visiting Colorado on Friday, President Obama declared the state a disaster area, which frees aid for communities affected by the wildfires.
"Ironically, Colorado Springs is going to rely heavily on federal funds for rebuilding," Dunn said. "But it won't cover everything."
-- With assistance from Mark Niquette in Columbus.
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