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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Denver8, Libraries Facing Budget Woes | Print |  E-mail

by Paul Kashmann

As municipalities around the country are finding out, the ongoing recession has tightened the monetary screws on budgetary spending, eliminating many line-item appropriations that have been taken for granted during past times of plenty.

In Colorado, no city has exemplified this between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place situation more than Colorado Springs. The city leaders in the Springs – a town whose voters have opted repeatedly for minimal government funding – decided earlier this year to cease powering a third of the town street lights each evening.

Statistics show that streetlights play a measurable role in reducing crime in a neighborhood. In an unfortunate symbiosis, the ranks of Colorado Springs police officers have declined from 687 two years ago to 643 today, and it appears there will be a further decline in personpower. Our friends to the south have eliminated trash pickup from their parks (the cans have actually been removed) and reduced bus service during non-peak times.

While some might consider such decisions somewhat draconian in nature, Colorado Springs is not alone. Similar cuts are being made from sea to shining sea. Santa Rosa, Calif., has embarked on a four-year Street Light Reduction Program expected to save some $400,000 each year in energy costs. And on the East Coast, Fitchburg, Mass., has deemed it necessary to do the same, darkening 60 percent of the city’s lights in a cost-saving effort. Residents blame an increase in the crime rate in Fitchburg on the lights-out decision.

Denver has not been exempt from such tactics. Reductions in previously sacrosanct services have already hit the city budget, and more could be coming.

Denver8 TV is our city’s most visible public access channel. It is Denver8 that is there covering Monday night City Council meetings until the wee hours when needed, as well as a variety of other committee, task force and advisory board meetings throughout the month.

In past years the channel’s programming has included a variety of shows commenting on city news – what’s going on in the mayor’s office, a synopsis of legislative activity, ribbon cuttings, new programs and the like. Perhaps the most critical piece of Denver8’s civic duty through the years has been its election coverage, which has shown the spotlight on the candidates and issues to be decided upon on your ballot. In case you didn’t notice, Denver8 was silent regarding the August primaries, and will be nearly equally as hamstrung as we approach the November general election.

Alan DeLollis is station manager for Denver8. He explained that the budget for his agency was “cut almost 50 percent for 2010, and we lost six employees. We were able to share some dollars to cover the special election in City Council District 1, which was a good thing. As far as our regular primary and general election coverage of reps at the state level, and the governor’s race, there’s nothing we can do. It’s a done deal. We explored various funding options with our partners at Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation (INC) and the League of Women Voters (LWV), but fund-raising just didn’t do it.”

DeLollis explained that bare-bones election coverage would have cost $15,000-$25,000. “That’s for minimal coverage. That doesn’t include support information about the ballot issues, or any promotion funds for advertising the programming. None of the ballot issues would have been included at those dollars. We are working with a consortium of metro-area Channel 8s on a jointly produced program on ballot issues. We expect it to be on in October while people have their ballots in their hands.”

“The scope of our work plan for 2010 has been highly focused on meeting coverage. We worked with Community Planning on the zoning meetings, we cover the Parks and Rec Advisory Board, and still do the City Council committee meetings. We’ll be covering the budget dialogue between mayor and council that will start on Sept. 23, including three full days on a department-by-department basis.”

DeLollis believes that “things are looking slightly better for 2011. Our partners – INC and LWV – are making their needs known to a bit broader of an elected audience. We’re working closely with the budget office and are hopeful that there will be funds in 2011 to enable us to cover the municipal elections (mayor, council, etc.) in better form.”

“We all understand the economy and the tough spot a lot of people and a lot of jurisdictions are in. We’re trying to soldier through it and be creative with what we have.”

Chris Nevitt is City Councilman from Denver’s District 7, and was recently elected as Council president for the next year. Nevitt ran for the position because “I really care about this institution and the role council plays in the governance of the city. We can be more effective and efficient and play a stronger role. Serving as president makes it possible for me to make more of a contribution.”

Nevitt’s first action was to restructure the council’s traditional 11 committee system into a stripped-down set of four committees, each handling a broader scope of inter-related functions, with co-chairs instead of a single chairperson, and more frequent meetings scheduled.

“For example,” said Nevitt, “Planning intersects with Parks in important ways, but in the past they were dealt with on separate committees. Both deal with Public Works intimately. They’re now grouped together under Land Use, Planning and Infrastructure.” The other departments created – Government Affairs & Finance; Business, Work Force and Sustainability; and Health, Safety, Education and Services – all strive for similar, efficient groupings of function.

The councilman is very aware of the budget issues that will come to the table on Sept. 15, when the mayor releases his annual budget for council consideration. In a recent committee meeting, Nevitt suggested that perhaps our library system, the hallmark of governmental free services, might be ripe for some changes.

“The budget situation is not pretty. Over the past couple of years we’ve done a great job of shielding cuts from the public. Those impacts have fallen consequently on city operations and personnel. Well, we’re at the bottom of that well. We have about $100 million to cut out of the coming budget. I have a hard time figuring how we get to that number without really starting to impact services.”

Nevitt explained that, “I have been a cost-recovery hawk all along. If there are ways to generate revenue that are not unreasonable we should be pursuing them. Not all city programs are fully funded by the fees they generate. We charge for inspections, permitting, a million different things. Many of them fail to capture the costs needed. This means we either reassess if we need the program, or we decide to subsidize that program through the general fund, and that comes from people’s taxes, and that’s not always fair.”

One of the programs Nevitt points to as being subsidized heavily by the General Fund is the operation of Denver’s 30 recreation centers. “That (recreation center) program recovers only 20 percent of our costs. We don’t want to quadruple the costs of recreation center memberships and programs. These are among the fees we feel it’s important to keep cheap. Perhaps some we can increase, and some we should reduce. I think it would be great if youth membership was free all year. Kaiser pays for that in the summer. How do we cover that cost the rest of the year?”

Looking at the Denver Public Library system, Nevitt assures that he has no hidden agenda in mind. “I’m not advocating for anything in particular. There’s basic services that absolutely should be free. But, are there other services we should charge for to defray costs? The library does research for folks – that’s all free. Perhaps borrowing of certain materials would be a pay service. We might consider a basic free membership, and an enhanced membership. I haven’t explored how others have done it, but right now the whole system is absolutely free. The rec center system is very cheap but not free. Does that make sense here? No one wants to charge for library services as a first choice, but if that means the doors stay open to serve everyone, that’s a good thing.”

Nevitt also believes Denver’s solid waste management system is in need of overhaul from an efficiency and cost savings perspective. “Modernizing our solid waste management so we can keep picking up people’s trash is high on my priority list and that’s shared with others on council.”

While Denver is moving forward on many modern day sustainability issues – energy efficiency, solar panels on city buildings and schools, waterless urinals, bike sharing, etc. – Nevitt sees our methods of trash pickup as stuck in the dark ages. “We have three different technologies for residential waste removal – the dumpsters are a total disaster, we have barrel pickup and then the old-fashioned garbage men. I thought that went out with Mayberry RFD,” he said. “This is one of those things we could do much more efficient and cost effective, but it takes capital investment to get there. I’d like to see everyone on individual barrel pickup, but to get there we need to buy barrels and new trucks. And right now, we don’t have the bread.”

To stay informed on Denver8’s coverage of the September budget hearings, call 311 or visit www.denvergov.org/denver8tv.

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