Colorado Springs plays host to this year’s Resource Bank, held Thursday and Friday this week. The city, nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, is a great place to have any conference, but it is especially fitting for a meeting of 500+ leaders in the free market/limited government movement. As Wayne Laugesen, editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette explained earlier this week (April 24):
Colorado Springs stands for freedom, perhaps more than any other American city. So it makes good sense that a collective meeting of men and women “of the mind” would gravitate to America the Beautiful City and the country’s finest resort.
What Colorado Springs does right was the topic of discussion in one of the sessions. That panel was moderated by Sean Paige, a former Washingtonian policy wonk who moved out to Colorado Springs about a decade ago to write editorials for the Colorado Springs Gazette, and then got involved in city government. We caught up with Paige to talk about the city and his experiences here:
InsiderOnline: Why do you call Colorado Springs “Freedom City USA”?
Sean Paige: It’s a limited government city. It has had that tradition even before the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights was created here. We want to be a magnet city for conservatives and libertarians. Michelle Malkin moved here recently in part because we have great schools because of the school choice we have here. I think it’s a vision. We fall short. Like other cities we own a hospital. We own a utility company. But right now we are in the process of discussing privatizing the hospital.
IO: What does Colorado Springs rely on the private sector for or not do at all that other city governments do?
SP: It seems elemental, but garbage collection. Denver has city employees collecting their garbage. When they go on strike or the city runs out of money, they don’t pick up the garbage. We have a great zoo, we have a great philharmonic, we have a great art museum here, and they’re all private.
In the recent economic turndown, we privatized our community centers, we privatized our pools, we moved toward privatizing our museums—getting them to stand alone. With the ebbs and flows of a city budget, there are certain entities that traditionally face the axe more than others. I think it’s actually liberating to take a community center or a pool that might be on the cutting block every time you go through a downturn in revenues and privatize it.
IO: Are those things run better now that they are private?
SP: Oh, no question. I was at one of the community centers when it was run by the city and I’ve been back several times since it’s been run by a Jewish group, and it’s like night and day. It’s amazing. The level of services has increased. It’s costing the city almost nothing. We do pay for basic maintenance, because we still own the building. But the private group runs all the programs.
IO: So you got involved in city government yourself a few years back, right? Was it the fiscal crisis that prompted you to run for city council?
SP: I got involved and then it just so happened we had a fiscal crisis, and that was an incredible opportunity for a limited-government person like me. Because of the situation we were in, people were more open-minded about limited-government ideas. It was only a couple of weeks after I was on the city council that we needed to find $20 million in budget cuts.
The community centers, the pools, and so on were on the chopping block. I put out the call to have public-private partnerships to get the private sector to help out with these things and people stepped up. I had a sense that they would because that’s kind of in the tradition of our city. We have such strong non-governmental actors. The reason they are strong is because we have kept government in check and not allowed it to encroach on private initiative.
IO: How hard was it to get the data you needed on to make decisions on city spending?
SP: That’s always problematic, especially in the old city-manager model. The city staff really ran the city and just spoon-fed stuff to the city council.
You really need some skeptical people on the council. I think my background as a journalist helped me. It wasn’t as easy for the staff to spoon-feed me what they thought I ought to know.
I see around the country there is a drive to open up city government. I think getting that transparency is one of the necessary steps to reforming city governments. Once people see what a city is doing, then in most cases they get motivated to act to fix the problems.
IO: So what is the state of the city finances now?
SP: Better. We got a lot of guff during the crisis for doing some things like turning off some city street lights. But we’re a lot better off coming out of it. We didn’t let the city government get that big to begin with, so when we had to roll it back, it wasn’t as painful. Right now we have a surplus. When I went on the council, we had to find $20 million to cut, which is significant for a city this size. When I left the council we were $20 million ahead. I certainly don’t take all the credit for that.
The natural dynamic is after the crisis passed, you see some backsliding into the old way of doing things. We’ve seen some of that with current councils. But we have a really strong mayor who wants to keep spending in check. If you make those hard decisions all they way along, they become less hard during a crisis.
IO: What would you say other cities could learn from Colorado Springs?
SP: Tax-limitation laws work. A tax-constrained environment actually strengthens the city because it allows the non-governmental entities to remain strong. The lesson of Colorado Springs is that people will take on some of those roles that government played if they are invited to do so. Unfortunately, we don’t find that out until a crisis. But it’s something that cities should be constantly evaluating. Should the government be doing this? Is it affordable? Can we do it in a more cost-effective way? Can we privatize it?
I’d like people to know that Colorado Springs is a successful city that runs well with a small government.