Hick: Gird for cuts, Denver

By Lucy McFadden
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

In his sixth State of the City address, a somber Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper told Denverites that they face an “unprecedented challenge.”

Although the mayor outlined positions on numerous other issues during the speech, Hickenlooper focused most of his attention on Denver’s economic situation, and, specifically, its budget.

Denver City Council members-at-large Carol Boigon and Doug Linkhart join Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, right, during their introduction at the 2009 State of the City Address.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Hickenlooper said he has already cut $86 million from the city’s budget in 2009, and another $120 million must be cut in the next 18 months.

The cuts, he said, came in the form of $16.8 million from personnel and $22.2 million from operational costs, saved by using old equipment and reducing service and supply costs.

“And you’ll notice the lights in the Webb building are turned off a lot earlier,” he added.

The mayor did not mention the source of the other $47 million in cuts in his speech at the Civic Center’s Greek Theater, or where he was planning to make the additional cuts.

A day later, however, members of the Denver City Council, who review the budget, were ready to offer a few suggestions.

“We must consider service reductions, more furloughs and possible layoffs,” said District 2 Councilman Rick Garcia.

He said the first cuts were likely to be made in recreation center hours, library hours and frequency of street sweeping and trash pickup.

Carol Boigon, Denver city councilwoman-at-large, and Marcia Johnson, who represents District 5, agree that city workers should be laid off only as a last resort.

District 3 Councilman Paul Lopez said he was concerned that cutting city services would hurt the community.

“I am really cautious about cutting back on those core basic services that contribute to a community’s well-being: trash removal, large item pickups in the alley, graffiti prevention, safety, our neighborhood inspection program, the maintenance of our streets and the cleanliness of our neighborhood,” he said.

Denver CIty Councilman Charlie Brown, District 6, talks to a reporter at the annual mayor’s address at Civic Center Park.
Photo by John Schoenwalter
The Colorado Statesman

Boigon said that although she knows the 2010 budget is likely to include cuts in city services, she wants to see the suggestions of various city departments before setting her priorities.

“I am fearful, but I have my own standards,” Boigon said. “I am going to be looking to do no long-term harm. I want to preserve our green canopy, which affects climate and the quality of air and distinguishes us from a pure prairie.”

No one wants to cut city services. No one wants to lay anyone off.

District 6 Councilman Charlie Brown, however, has some candidates for cuts.

First on his list was the $100,000-a-year budget for the Denver Women’s Commission, an advocacy group begun under the administration of Mayor Bill McNichols.

“Have we outlived this need?” Brown asked The Colorado Statesman. “What about the homeless program? Is it working so well that we are attracting homeless people from all over the country? Is Denver becoming a homeless Mecca?”

Brown said such “sacred cows” are “the most dangerous animals in government” because it’s impossible to eliminate them since they’ve been around so long.

“We need to take advantage of this time to look at these programs and decide whether we really need them,” Brown said.

He said he regretted that council members had reinstated the Career Service Authority’s diversity manager position after Hickenlooper had cut it.

Councilman Lopez said he believes money can be saved by tightening, rather than eliminating, programs.

Englewood Mayor Jim Woodward, center, is flanked by Dacono officials Mayor Wade Carlson, left, and City Administrator Bill Efting.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“I think the cuts are obvious,” said Lopez. “What I’m hoping is that we can become more efficient with the programs and where money is being spent and where we need it the most, like streets that are falling apart, capital improvement, potholes.”

Johnson suggested a freeze on raises in salaries.

Doug Linkhart, Denver city councilman-at-large, suggested that the city could strategically shift personnel within departments to avoid layoffs.

“We can put people to work on projects for all of the stimulus money we are receiving and capital projects instead of contracting out for these projects and meanwhile laying off city workers.”

Linkhart said he was disappointed by the outcome of the Senate Finance Committee meeting Wednesday, where he learned that “different departments are planning to cut a lot of children’s programs, after-school programs and youth programs. Many of those budget cuts will hurt us in the long run. Child welfare and health problems will go up.”

Along with the gloom, the council members saw reason for optimism in the speech.

Hickenlooper said services such as 3-1-1, a non-emergency hotline for questions and concerns about city services, have helped the city find ways to “do more with less.” For example, neighborhood inspectors include graffiti in their inspections — putting 22 inspectors on graffiti instead of just one.

Hickenlooper held a series of community meetings to let citizens share their concerns for city services. He also offered a survey on the city Web site, www.denver.gov.

“While we are not immune, we have fared better than many comparable cities around the country,” Hickenlooper said.

Hickenlooper said a city hiring freeze that started more than a year ago, a task force that recommends strategies for economic stimulus and Gov. Bill Ritter’s new energy economy have positioned Denver for recovery.

He also noted that Colorado has been awarded $53 million of the national stimulus package money, and he lauded the Better Denver Bond projects, which invest in construction or repair of roads, libraries, parks, hospitals, public safety facilities and cultural facilities.

Also on the bright side, Hickenlooper noted that Denver International Airport continues to be the single largest business generator for the region, that FasTracks “symbolizes the ability to see beyond the problems of today,” and that Union Station is in the process of becoming “a transportation center linking the region and a catalyst for all metro Denver.”

Lucy@coloradostatesman.com