Schadenfreude is a German word with no precise English equivalent. It means taking a smug delight in the misfortunes of others. A lot of schadenfreude can be found in the attempts by liberals to turn a budget crunch in Colorado Springs into a wider indictment of conservatism, since the two are synonymous in some minds. But most of the critiques could only come from people who don't really know the city, but dislike it for ideological reasons.
The Denver Post parachuted a reporter in several weeks back, who painted an excessively grim picture of circumstances. That got picked up on and accentuated by ABC News. That's how Colorado Springs became the poster child for conservatism gone wild, and gone wrong. But the city is far from the desolate and desperate place portrayed. It's adapting to fiscal adversity with creativity and a can-do spirit. And it's still leagues ahead, in terms of livability and quality of life, of most places from which the ideological sniping comes.
Typical of the slams was this post by David Sirota in the Denver Huffington Post, which shows that he doesn't know anything more about Colorado Springs than he knows about the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. Here's Sirota, spewing stupid.
"The hometown of Focus on the Family, The Springs (as we call it out here in Colorado) is where the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights originated. TABOR, for those who don't know, prevents the state legislature from ever raising taxes, and forces massive spending cuts during times of recession. And now, as the Denver Post reports, the city - which has legislated much of the anti-tax fervor into municipal ordinance - has become a shining example of what happens to a community when conservatives' anti-tax policies are distilled into their most pure form . . . .
The next time you hear a conservative prattle on about how much he/she hates taxes and how the solution to all problems in America is to cut taxes, remember Colorado Springs. It is the anti-tax zealot's nirvana - and it shows what America would look like if our politics continue to be dominated by the me-first, screw-everyone-else crowd and their tax-hating ways."
And Sirota continues the anti-Springs slurs in Saturday's Denver Post. Sirota called the city "as pristine a conservative laboratory as you'll find in America," before ticking-off a litany of budget cuts and highlighting our "tent ghettos" for the homeless. He called us "a dystopia whose anti-tax fires incinerate social fabric faster than James Dobson can say "family values." We're beginning to "reek of economic death," says Sirota, all as a result of our conservative leanings.
Let me bring some balance to this picture.
Colorado Springs is suffering through a severe budget crunch. In that, it's no different than most American cities. The source of the problem isn't the fact that we're a bastion of Republicanism, or that we're the birthplace of the Taxpayer's Bill Of Rights (TABOR) or that we're the home town of TABOR author Douglas Bruce. Things are tight because we're a sales tax dependent city in the midst of an economic downturn. It's really that simple. The problem is falling revenue, not TABOR spending limits or the dreaded "ratchet effect." We might hit up against our TABOR limits in four or five years, if the economy begins booming tomorrow. But the city can ask voters to keep the excess revenues, if that happy day arrives. And it's not unprecedented that they would say "yes," contrary to caricature.
Voters could have helped the city out several months back, by approving a property tax increase. But they declined to write the city a blank check. Voters here are reluctant to approve tax hikes without detailed plans for what the new funds will be used for (which I see as a virtue, not a vice). And there were other factors at play, including widespread economic anxiety, the city's controversial use of taxpayer money to buy the U.S. Olympic Committee a headquarters building and a sense that City Council (to which I was appointed late last year) is out of touch with average people.
There are a lot of Republicans in Colorado Springs, but far fewer hard-core conservatives than one might imagine. A lot of those who pull the Republican lever, and the people they elect, are RINOs. We even have a few Democrats up in the Statehouse now, if that escaped notice. And they are liberal Democrats to boot. We're far from the conservative monolith of myth.
The larger-than-life Douglas Bruce lives here, and he undoubtedly has had an impact at the local level. But Bruce was on a losing streak at the local ballot box until November, when one of his measures squeaked by, helped by the resounding rejection of the above-mentioned tax hike. Bruce's abrasive personality alienates many of his erstwhile allies, and it has made him a detriment to his own causes. He can still raise a ruckus, and make city officials miserable, but his influence is waning, in my opinion.
Colorado Springs is selling its police helicopters, as the Post reports. But they were only a year or two away from being grounded due to old age. Our relatively low crime rate makes them a luxury we can do without. Transit system hours have been reduced -- but that's because we grew the system beyond what was sustainable when we were flush with cash. A number of police and fire jobs will go "unfilled," as the Post reports, but many were sparred the budget ax (despite the fact that the police and fire payroll constitute roughly 55 percent of the city budget).
Sirota decries the "tent ghettos" that have sprung up, made up of what he calls "newly homeless residents," all while "the city's social services are being reduced." But he's just making stuff up. We don't know whether the camps are populated by "newly homeless," or the chronically homeless who are taking advantage of the city's compassion. Unlike the cold-hearted caricature Sirota draws, we have allowed the camps to grow (grow out of control, in the eyes of many locals) out of humanitarian impulses. Many here believe it's the abundance of social services (public and private) in Colorado Springs, not the lack, that's making the town a magnet for the homeless.
Many of our parks may brown-up this summer (depending on the weather), for lack of water. But we're working on ways to deal with that and a new city-county parks district is in the planning stages. Mowing parks every other week doesn't constitute a citywide calamity.
Community centers, swimming pools and a number of other city-owned facilities have been granted three months funding, in the hope that we can find a more self-sustaining operating model. Many are forming promising new partnerships with outside individuals and organizations. The Denver Post focused on the possible closures, but declined to mention that several of the facilities already have found adequate private support a stay open, while others are making headway in that direction.
This is a city with above-average rates of volunteerism and charitable giving. We don't look reflexively to government to do things citizens can do themselves. And we're counting on that can-do spirit and civic-mindedness, along with a willingness to consider out-of-the-box solutions, to see us through this budget crunch.
In another innovative response to the budget crunch, we're creating an independent advisory group of local business professionals, to give the city suggestions on how it can operate in a more efficient, innovative and cost- effective manner.
Downsizing city government is painful -- but it's made a little easier by the fact that we keep government in check to start with. Functions performed by government in many cities are performed by the private sector here. We have privatized garbage collection. Our excellent zoo and philharmonic, our Fine Arts Center and the World Arena, operate independently, with no taxpayer funding. Keeping government reined-in allows us to keep our taxes and cost of living relatively low, making this a city where people of modest means can live relatively well and reach for the American dream.
This remains a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family, in contrast to the gloomy observations of outsiders. Just consider the national accolades this supposed- hell hole has garnered in the past few years:
- Colorado Springs ranked 10th on the 2009 Forbes Best Places for Business and Careers list. The rankings are based on income and growth, cost of doing business, available labor, crime rates, housing costs and net migration. 200 large metropolitan areas were ranked.
I could tick-off a similar list of kudos the city won in 2008, including the 5th spot on Kiplinger's list of "Best Cities to Live, Work and Play" and 3rd place on MSNBC.com's ranking of "Best Cities to Live in the U.S.," a compilation of "best of" lists. We were even named "DogTown USA 2008" by Dog Fancy Magazine.
This doesn't exactly fit the portrait of a city that's "starting to reek of economic death," in Sirota's words. Most American cities would die for such recognition.
Maybe what really infuriates liberals about Colorado Springs is that it demonstrates that you can have a great American city without the need for a great big government running things; that you can keep taxes in check and still deliver an outstanding quality of life; that people here will step up to do for themselves, the things government can't or shouldn't be doing for them. This town remains a magnet for transplants because it keeps the American dream affordable and attainable, by actually putting America's limited government ideals into practice.
Take all the pot shots you want, liberals, but Colorado Springs will get through this fiscal crunch and emerge on the other side stronger and better than ever. Drop in and visit some time. You may like it so much you decide to stay.
Just please check your statist prejudices and preconceptions at the city limits.