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Residents choose DIY city services over tax hike

Tired of indiscriminate spending, questionable officials and unnecessary expenditures, the residents of one Colorado city have decided to end the era of big government in their municipality, even if it means mowing the grass at the local park themselves.

And so Monday, the 380,000 inhabitants of Colorado Springs, a city only 160 kilometres from Denver, will wake up in a town with only the most basic municipal services.

Come evening, one-third of the city's 24,000 streetlights will remain dark. Two police helicopters are listed for sale on the government website. Trash cans have been removed from city streets, replaced with signs asking residents to dispose of their trash at home.

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Park workers will only mow local green spaces sporadically, and flowers will go unwatered.

The city recreation centres, indoor and outdoor pools and several museums will close permanently on March 31 unless private donors step in. More than 63,000 hours of bus service have been slashed and law-enforcement jobs have been left unfilled.

It all started when the nine-member city council of a conservative Colorado hub asked residents to approve a substantial property-tax increase last fall. They warned of drastic cuts to services if the measure failed, of closed community centres and untended park land, police layoffs and unfilled potholes.

The tax, which would have added $27.6-million to city coffers, was rejected by more than 65 per cent of voters.

"We called their bluff," resident Douglas Bruce says. "They need to downsize. It's a good thing."

Rather than worrying about their city falling into disrepair, most citizens are unfazed by the cuts and say they would rather sacrifice services than allow government mismanagement of their tax dollars. On a small scale, it is an experiment Washington should watch.

Larry Small, vice-mayor of Colorado Springs, blamed the global economic crisis and the fact that the city has experienced a $35-million (U.S.) decline in its sales-tax revenue since 2007.

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"People just don't have the money right now," he says. "It's not a matter of not wanting to support the city."

But Joshua Dunn, a political science professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, says there is widespread distrust of government in the city, which has long been tax averse.

The city demographics are almost evenly divided between evangelical Christians, members of the armed forces stationed at the local Fort Carson, and "your more libertarian Rocky Mountain western-type of Republican," he says.

There has also been mismanagement and suggestions of corruption within the city council.

Last fall, it was revealed that the city had given a $53-million (U.S.) building to the U.S. Olympic Committee to house its operations centre. To do so, they remortgaged the city's police operations centre, which had just been paid off that month. And they did it without voter approval.

A month later, city council announced the proposed property-tax increase and began warning of lost services.

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"Some of the rhetoric by the city council was really excessive," Mr. Dunn says.

"It just seemed over the top, particularly coming from them when they had lost their credibility."

Mr. Bruce, a strongly anti-tax former state legislator who wrote the taxpayers' bill of rights, says he doesn't believe the sky will fall this week as services are slashed.

The city has a low crime rate, he says, and many of the threatened recreation centres are rarely used.

"The government should stick to its traditional municipal role, which is police and fire services, road repair and very little else," he says. "They're not responsible for entertaining people."

And he argues that the city has many assets it could sell off. The hospital is worth $366-million (U.S.), he says, and they own the billion-dollar local utility system, parking lots, skating rinks and shopping malls.

"In a super-conservative community," he says, "they have amassed a socialist empire."

And many residents have said they will step forward to fill the void left by municipal services, opening recreation centres themselves, tending to the shared park land and disposing of their own garbage.

"Of course, we can't turn the water on," Mr. Dunn says. "We have to pray for rain."

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