Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Colorado Springs: Christian Libertarian Paradise

It’s hard to imagine a city more conservative than Colorado Springs. This is the home of Focus on the Family, Pastor Ted Haggard’s New Life Church, and (at least for the time being) the John Jay Institute. You don’t get more right-wing than Colorado Springs.

Naturally these folks don’t like taxes, even voting down a proposed tax increase to fund city services last year. And as expected, the city has made severe cuts to services like trash pick-up in parks, bus service, police protection, even deactivated nearly 9,000 city streetlights. Private groups have ponied up money to keep fountains running in some parks:
So a local swim club has taken over some of the pools. Volunteers pick up trash in parks. Some — meaning those who can afford it — pay extra to turn on the streetlights in front of their own houses.

The Springs, as locals call it, is a city in transition, a grand experiment in what might happen if a government really does hold the line on taxes — as some citizens demand — and starts curtailing services. No one knows what will result as government shrinks and citizens take up the slack.

Will wealthy neighborhoods thrive, while poor areas decline further? Will crime rise as cops go missing? Will charity transform Colorado Springs into a libertarian paradise?

Or will it be a colossal flop?

I think I know the answer. It seems to me we’ve been down this road before, many times. It seems to me that Americans are really, really bad at remembering their history. Will charity transform Colorado Springs into a libertarian paradise? Charity has never, ever been able to shoulder the burden of providing public services, not equitably and not over the long haul. For hundreds of years charity was supposed to do this and there’s a damn good reason we stopped relying on charity: it didn’t work. There’s not enough. It ends up being inequitable. Wealthy neighborhoods get the goodies, poor neighborhoods do not.

Wealthy people don’t bear the brunt of these cuts, the poor do:

"I was working up north in a little diner, and I had to quit because of the bus," said Joseph Williams, 18, while waiting for a Mountain Metro last week.

Added fellow passenger Rashad Lindon, 20: "There are times I have to work late, and I have to put $20 in people's gas tanks to get around. It's a pain — from having to pay $1.75, to paying $35 for a taxi, or getting somebody to pick me up."

Next, safety may become a concern. The city fire department is down 20 firefighters this year; the police department has 42 fewer cops on the streets. For both fire and police, there are no classes of recruits in training, which is unusual.

"In the last year and a half, we went from being a proactive, problem-solving to a reactive police department, to where we only go when we are called," said Pete Tomitsch, president of the Colorado Springs Police Protective Association.

"There is a lot of frustration within the department. There is a whole slew of calls we don't respond to that a year and a half ago we did."

In Libertarian Paradise, the wealthy always do well. Getting around town is never a problem because you own a car, and insurance, and mobility opens you to opportunity. The wealthy can hire private security companies to patrol their gated communities. They don’t need to go to the public swimming pool because they have private swimming pools, either at the country club or in their backyard. They can pay to have the streetlights turned on Privilege Drive whereas someone on Unfortunate Avenue cannot. Relying on charity creates Separate and very, very Unequal:

Not every neighborhood in the city, though, is streetlight- stingy. Nor is every median brown, or each park without trash cans.

So far, about 900 lights have been "adopted" by Colorado Springs residents — a fee was paid, and the light was turned back on.

In some cases, services can be restored through volunteer labor. Residents adopted more than 100 trash cans in parks by agreeing to empty them.

But which parks and which community centers will stay active? That depends on where individuals or groups are willing to step up. And private enterprise means higher fees.

Three public pools formerly run by the city are now operated by Colorado Springs Swim School, a private swim club that agreed to take on a five-year contract. Rates have gone up. Family admission at Wilson Ranch pool, for example, has vaulted from $10.50 to $20.

The swim club's efforts are surely community-minded.

"We just couldn't let it happen," said Tina Dessart, the owner of the swim school. "Our focus has been learn to swim for a long, long time. When pools shut down, drownings increase."

But the escalating costs for residents, along with other aspects of the budget cutting, are unfair, said City Councilwoman Jan Martin, who grew up in Colorado Springs.

"These medians and parks that are being adopted are in wealthy neighborhoods," she said. "We are seeing the creation of a community of haves and have nots."

Nobody could have anticipated that!