Rock Ledge Ranch, West Center in city budget sights
Closures contingent on Nov. 3 mill-levy vote

       Tax skeptic Douglas Bruce calls it a “massive tax increase” that voters are sure to reject, but if that happens to a City Council-proposed mill levy hike in the Nov. 3 city election, city administrators say that numerous services now offered by the city will be severely cut back or eliminated.

In a familiar summer scene at the Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site, a horse-drawn wagon pulls up for riders in front of the historic, recently renovated Orchard House. The ranch (and house) would be closed and the horses and other animals probably sold under the current city budget scenario.
Westside Pioneer photo

       On the Westside, the primary losses would be the city-owned Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site and West Center - both of which would be shut down. Another loss would be the city's nature interpretation programs at the privately owned Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center.
       Less direct impacts would include reductions in police, firefighters and bus service. The Parks Department would face a shutdown of the Pioneers Museum, closures of the seven city pools, a cutback in parks maintenance for the second year in a row, elimination of the flower bed program in parks and medians (because the city nursery would be gone), and increases in sports fees for all ages, as needed, to cover the costs of those programs.
       City Parks Director Paul Butcher said the city would keep one staff member to serve as a caretaker for both the Garden of the Gods and Rock Ledge Ranch. The thinking is that the sites are important enough to require someone close at hand in case serious issues arise. Regarding Rock Ledge's working ranch operation, “we're not sure what to do with the animals,” Butcher said, but “it wouldn't make a lot of sense to keep them.”
       The city bought Rock Ledge Ranch over 40 years ago, in response to a public appeal not to develop the property, which had been a working ranch in one form or another going back to the 1880s. Summer seasons at the ranch have been offered since 1978.
       The West Center, which has estimated its annual use at about 50,000 people, is one of six community centers around the city that would be locked up. It just relocated to the Buena Vista school, after about 15 years inside West Middle School. In an interview, long-time center director E.D. Rucker lamented the “quality of life” loss that the closing would mean.
       Both the center and Rock Ledge earn some money, but nowhere near the amount it costs to run them. Rock Ledge, which is run almost entirely by volunteers, still costs about $180,000 a year, with proceeds defraying that amount by only $35,000, according to Matt Mayberry, Parks' head of Cultural Services and director of Pioneers Museum.
       Because of the impending loss of the ranch , Ron Wright, president of Rock Ledge's volunteer organization, the Living History Association (LHA), said in an interview he plans to join a community effort to work for the levy increase. The first goal is to raise about $120,000, most of which would be spent to advertise the need for higher taxes to the public, he said.
       The City Council vote Aug. 25 to put the mill-levy increase on the ballot was 8-1. The only opponent was Darryl Glenn, who was irked that city finance officials had not analyzed the specific impact that higher property taxes could have on city businesses.
       The increase plan was crafted by Council member Jan Martin, a Westside resident, in response to City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft's revelation this month of an expected shortfall of $25.4 million in 2010, following on the heels of $40 million in cuts over the previous 18 months. Martin's plan would raise taxes 6 mills initially (for 2009, collected in 2010), and tack on another mill each year through 2013, with the levy remaining at that level (14,279 - a total of 10 mills above what it is now) after that.
       Martin also gained council support for her proposal to eliminate the city's business personal property tax, in hopes of offsetting negative commercial impacts from the mill-levy hike. Allowed to expire would be a .665 mill levy that is scheduled to sunset after this year.
       The expectation is that the levy would bring in an additional $27.6 million for 2010, which would allow roughly the status quo (this year's budget). Cuts this year affecting the Westside had included reduced park watering, closed park restrooms and a shorter Rock Ledge summer season.
       With the increasing levy through 2013, new revenue to the city would increase each year, reaching $46 million by the last year, the ballot resolution states.
       Martin described her plan as “very reasonable. It's not a fix-all , but it does stop the bleeding for 2010… All departments will be impacted if we don't pass it.”
       Bruce made his comments to council at the meeting, alleging that the mill-levy increase would amount to a 284 percent increase. Occurring during a “severe recession,” that would “kill the economy,” he said.
       With apparent sarcasm, he suggested that instead of pushing their mill-levy hike, council members should work to stop an initiative he is seeking to get on the ballot, which would include the end of the city's Stormwater Enterprise.
       Returning the sarcasm after Bruce finished talking, Council member Scott Hente commented, “I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with Doug Bruce. We should work to defeat his initiative.”
       Council member Jerry Heimlicher added the point that council would be remiss if it did not offer an option to the public other than simply implementing the cuts proposed by the city manager. “We're not raising taxes,” he said. “We're giving an option. You, the public, will decide.”
       City officials' belief is that because of the “ratchet-down” effect of Bruce's Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) law, passed in 1992, the Colorado Springs mill levy is unrealistically low. According to a memo from the City Manager's Office, the 4.279 mill levy “is more than 30 percent below the 1990 mill levy.”
       Among 10 major cities along the Front Range, Colorado Springs has the lowest property tax rate and is the second-lowest in terms of combined property and sales tax rates, a city financial bar chart shows.
       And, because of a mediocre local economy, inflation-adjusted sales tax earnings have dropped about 20 percent since 1999, according to another bar chart.

Westside Pioneer article