Innovators in ActionReforming Local Government in Colorado Springs

As is often documented here on Reason Foundation’s Out of Control Policy blog, the Great Recession gut checked federal, state and local government budgets across the United States. Overspending finally caught up to state capitols and many policymakers realized how vulnerable their budgets were (and still are) to economic uncertainty. However, policymakers weren’t the only ones who noticed. In Colorado Springs, concerned citizen and president of The Broadmoor Hotel, Steve Bartolin, wrote a letter to then Mayor Lionel Rivera criticizing the city’s unsustainable fiscal policy and lack of transparency.

At the time, Colorado Springs faced two major long-term issues: First, unsustainable fiscal policy exacerbated by a lack of transparency; and second, burgeoning civil employee pension liabilities that are outside the control of local government [civil servants are part of the state’s Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA)]. These concerns, combined with citizen dissatisfaction, created a distrustful environment blocking meaningful government reform.

Letter writing was a respectable start, but that’s not where Bartolin’s efforts ended. Bartolin’s letter ultimately rallied community, business, and political leaders (like former City Councilman Sean Paige), who partnered to create The City Committee in 2010. The City Committee is a nonprofit, nonpartisan civic organization focused on applying best business practices to improve the operators of Colorado Springs’ city government and its enterprises.

I recently sat down with Chuck Fowler, CEO and Chairman of The City Committee, where he discusses the formation of the organization, the changing structure of city government in Colorado Springs, and future government reform efforts in store for The City Committee. Here’s an excerpt:

Kenny: Do you have any recommendations for concerned citizens who might be interested in starting something like The City Committee in their community?

Fowler: First, the common thread is the recognition there’s a problem. Second, that it’s time to do business differently. Every community is different and the variables that have shaped communities over time are what make them different. Recognition of the problem and willingness to find the courage to make changes is what will bind communities together. Communities need to find their collective courage, tear down their silos, to look at the issues they’re confronting in a realistic way, which I think if one trusts the current economic forecasts its going to be a while before governments have the type of revenue that they enjoyed the past few decades—something’s got to give.

Growing the revenue to government enterprises is less likely of an outcome than a reduction of public services by the government. The only way to pay for a level of service that some have come to expect from government is to question: is this something government should do? And if it is, maybe their role is to oversee procurement to give the private sector the privilege to provide these services competitively. This practice is widely known as managed competition.

Economic cycles come and go. Financial tides rise and fall. At this moment in our country’s unique economic and political history, all citizens—whether individuals, businesses or public servants—can and should participate in redefining appropriate solutions for more effective and efficient government. American ingenuity has always led to innovative solutions. That’s foundational to the mission of the City Committee.

Read the full interview available online here. For more, see Reason Foundation’s full Innovators in Action 2012 series available online here.