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Facing Budget Gap, Colorado City Shuts Off Lights

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Facing Budget Gap, Colorado City Shuts Off Lights

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Facing Budget Gap, Colorado City Shuts Off Lights

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GUY RAZ, host:

There are some signs that the U.S. is emerging from its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, but those signs aren't evident in many cities across America. Take, for example, Colorado Springs.

Last November, voters there rejected a bid to triple local property taxes in order to close a budget gap. Now, in response, the city has cut the number of police and firefighters. Community centers, pools and museums are also closing, and neighbors are being encouraged to bring their lawnmowers to local parks next summer to cut the grass.

NPR's Jeff Brady has the story.

JEFF BRADY: This city of 400,000 people is one of a handful that's turning off streetlights to save money.

(Soundbite of beeping)

BRADY: A utility worker in a white lift flips up atop of a lamp and turns a switch. Then he puts an orange band around the pole so neighbors know the light was turned off on purpose. Then the crew is off to another light down the block.

Shutting off a third of its streetlights will save Colorado Springs about $1.2 million in electricity, but that's just a down payment on a $28 million budget gap this year.

Vice Mayor Larry Small says a lot of people will notice changes in the city's 400 parks. Three years back, the parks' budget was $19 million. This year, it's $5 million.

Vice Mayor LARRY SMALL (Colorado Springs, Colorado): We've taken all the trash cans out. We're not going to be doing any litter collections in the parks. We're hoping the citizens will pack it out themselves as they bring it in.

BRADY: All the restrooms have been closed. There will be very little watering, and crews will mow just once a month instead of weekly. The city even trimmed its police and fire budgets and is auctioning three of its police helicopters on the Internet. Still, Small says, that's not enough.

Vice Mayor SMALL: We did have a transit system. That's almost gone completely now.

BRADY: The city sold nine buses and will use the proceeds to pay operating costs. Colorado Springs resident Don Miller(ph) has lived here for a decade and says it's just too difficult to get around town now.

Mr. DON MILLER: As a matter of fact, I'm leaving. My lease is up in November. So I'm going to get away from here.

BRADY: Because?

Mr. MILLER: Because of the bus system. I don't drive. I ride the bus, and there's no bus service on Saturdays and Sundays.

BRADY: In this politically conservative city, most on the street say the city just needs to spend its money more wisely. Shirley Kelley(ph) is among those concerned about salaries and benefits for public employees.

Ms. SHIRLEY KELLEY: I think the salaries have to come down to be more even with what the private sector is paying. It seems like the city from what I hear, and I don't know this as a fact, but it seems like the city is overpaying their workers.

BRADY: The city argues wages are comparable to other municipalities. Still, small-government activists like Douglas Bruce echo concerns about pay, and when it comes to shutting off street lamps and pulling trash cans out of parks...

Mr. DOUGLAS BRUCE (Activist): The government is using its typical tactic of making highly publicized cuts in order to make people feel the pain to some extent.

BRADY: If that's truly the strategy, it may have backfired. In November, voters here approved an initiative sponsored by Bruce that further whittles away at city finances.

Colorado Springs now is considering wholesale changes to the way it operates. City leaders are thinking about selling the local utilities and a hospital. That could raise an estimated $1.3 billion.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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