Politico has an excellent story up about the Colorado Springs experiment. The town elected a real-estate maven, with no political experience at all, who promised to make Colorado Springs great, just run it like a business. Sound familiar? In most respects, Steve Bach is just like a certain Tiny Tyrant. Bach also made much hay out of the whole “jobs, jobs, jobs!” business, which did not pan out in the slightest. This is a good lesson, because this is the road the whole damn country is going down, and it is going to fail, spectacularly. People rarely want to employ sense when it comes to money, and this is particularly true of Americans, who are always looking for a whole lot of something for nothing.
For a city, like the country at large, that was hurting economically, Steve Bach seemed like a man with an answer. What he promised sounded radically simple: Wasteful government is the root of the pain, and if you just run government like the best businesses, the pain will go away. Easy. Because he had never held office and because he actually had been a successful entrepreneur, people were inclined to believe he really could reinvent the way a city was governed.
The city’s experiment was fascinating because it offered a chance to observe some of the most extreme conservative principles in action in a real-world laboratory. Producers from “60 Minutes” flew out to talk with the town’s leaders. The New York Times found a woman in a dark trailer park pawning her flat screen TV to buy a shotgun for protection. “This American Life” did a segment portraying Springs citizens as the ultimate anti-tax zealots, willing to pay $125 in a new “Adopt a Streetlight” program to illuminate their own neighborhoods, but not willing to spend the same to do so for the entire city. “I’ll take care of mine” was the gist of what one council member heard from a resident when she confronted him with this fact.
That’s where Colorado Springs was frozen in the consciousness of the country—a city determined to redefine the role of government, led by a sharp-elbowed businessman who didn’t care whom he offended along the way (not unlike a certain president). But it has been five years since “This American Life” packed up its mics. A lot has changed in that time, not least of which is that the local economy, which nearly drowned the city like a concrete block tied around its balance sheet, is buoyant once again. Sales tax revenue has made the books plump with surplus. Enough to turn those famous streetlights back on. Seven years after the experiment began, the verdict is in—and it’s not at all what its architects planned.
One of the lessons: There’s a real cost to saving money.
Take the streetlights. Turning them off had saved the city about $1.25 million. What had not made the national news stories was what had happened while those lights were off. Copper thieves, emboldened by the opportunity to work without fear of electrocution, had worked overtime scavenging wire. Some, the City Council learned, had even dressed up as utility workers and pried open the boxes at the base of streetlights in broad daylight. Keeping the lights off might have saved some money in the short term, but the cost to fix what had been stolen ran to some $5 million.
There has been a lot of this kind of reckoning over the past half-decade. From crisis came a desire for disruption. From disruption came, well, too much disruption. And from that came a full-circle return to professional politicians. Including one—a beloved mayor and respected bureaucrat who was short-listed to replace James Comey as FBI director—who is so persuasive he has gotten Colorado Springs residents to do something the outside world assumed they were not capable of: Five years after its moment in the spotlight, revenue is so high that the same voters who refused to keep the lights on have overwhelmingly approved ballot measures allowing the city to not only keep some of its extra tax money, but impose new taxes as well.
In the process, many residents of Colorado Springs, but especially the men and women most committed to making the city thrive, have learned a few other lessons. That perpetual chaos can be exhausting. That the value of the status quo rises with the budget’s bottom line. And that it helps when the people responsible for running the city are actually talking with one another. All it took was a few years running an experiment that everyone involved seems happy is over.