Sometimes it takes an
outsider’s perspective to point out to people the reality that’s
around them. So it is with Canada’s National Post, which
surveyed the troubled behemoth to its south, and found an example
of Americans responding to recession-shriveled tax revenues and
government services by boldly doing stuff for themselves.
As Post scribe Kathryn Blaze Carlson
writes, the recession sort of left Colorado Springs in the
More than a third of the city’s 24,512 streetlights went dark.
Some 393 trash cans were removed from 128 neighbourhood parks.
Public drinking fountains ran dry and park bathrooms were locked.
Buses stopped running at 6:15 p.m. and pools shuttered. Irrigation
at city parks was ramped down, yielding thirsty, yellowing, brittle
grass. Roads deteriorated into a Swiss cheese of potholes and
This was Colorado Springs circa spring 2010. The mountain town
was still reeling from the recession, its coffers hit by a steep
decline in the sales tax revenues it depends on so heavily. The
government was spending more than it was bringing in, it had too
many employees, and it was being drained by an unsustainable
And by virtue of how it has handled its fiscal crisis, the city
lived up to its reputation as a tax-wary, libertarian outpost in
the American frontier.
This is a mainstream media piece using the word “libertarian,”
so we should assume that Colorado Springs residents responded to
hard times by resorting to cannibalism and emulating the plot of
Road Warrior, right? Not so much. Actually, residents
voted down onerous tax hikes that would have been spent on
politician-preferred priorities in favor of paying for or providing
their own services.
When the lamps illuminating Ralph Kelly’s street were switched
off, he and his neighbours together paid the city about $100 to
“adopt” a streetlight and reignite a shared bulb. There was also an
“adopt a trash can” program, where the city supplied the bin but
residents hauled the garbage to privately run participating
The phenomenon extended beyond people’s immediate neighborhoods,
[W]hen the government shut off the landmark fountain in America
the Beautiful Park three years ago, non-profits and residents
banded together to raise $25,000 to keep it flowing. When the city
considered closing the innercity’s Westside Community Center, the
Woodland Valley Chapel offered to manage it with only limited
municipal support. That partnership, and others like it, continues
to this day.
When the police force was slashed and Chief Pete Carey “needed
to get innovative,” as he put it in an interview, volunteers became
community service officers. They cost 60% less than police officers
and can respond to non-injury traffic accidents or even burglaries
so long as the thief has left the scene.
A local businessman also formed the City Committee to pore over
the municipal books. Not surprisingly, committee members found that
spending was nonsensical and wasteful and had Colorado Springs on
the road to near-term insolvency.
Carlson does point out that not every neighborhood so
effectively filled in the gaps. Residents in poorer areas weren’t
able to so readily step-in. This certainly, to some extent,
represents fewer resources on which to draw to replace tax-funded
services. You don’t pay $100 to light a street lamp if you don’t
have it. I have to wonder, though, whether it might not also
represent some of the differences in priorities and habits that
help to keep people in poverty. It doesn’t cost much to haul your
own trash — that’s actually a popular money-saver in my neck of the
woods — or to clean and patrol your own streets. But the article
doesn’t give enough information to draw firm conclusions on the
Colorado Springs, now recovering, has apparently maintained many
of the cost-saving practices it adopted from necessity. The city
has also tightened its budgeting practices, including adopting
zero-based budgeting, under which budgets have to be freshly
justified every year instead of being based on the previous year’s
To judge by the very interesting piece in the National
Post, our friends in D.C. might want to spend some of their
seemingly endless junket time on a fact-finding mission to Colorado
Springs. Oh, yeah. And then actually implement what they learn.
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