Denver’s mayoral election bodes ill for city and state

The city of Denver elected a new mayor on June 7, and it didn’t make much news this side of the Continental Divide. It should, since the election affirms the direction that Colorado’s capital city is headed and will ultimately affect the pocketbooks of the rest of the state.

The job was left open when John Hickenlooper was Peter Principled into the position of Colorado governor. For those unfamiliar with the business concept of the Peter Principle, it explains that “in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Hickenlooper, to his credit, is carrying on a fairly benign example of the principle and has miffed some of the more liberal state politicians who had hoped for a more robust calamity.

New Denver Mayor and former City Councilman Michael Hancock comes from an activist background that seems to include no real private-sector employment and lots of organizing, in the community, sort of like what you would call a community organizer.

Here’s a blurb from his campaign to give you the flavor: “Michael helped communities, nonprofits and other clients all over the country craft and enact strategic plans to solve economic and budget challenges, increase civic participation and improve governance.”

So you see, he’s just the leader for a city that has projected a $100 million budget shortfall this year, with no end in sight, especially since he was a member of the City Council that helped create the financial dilemma.

Based on the campaign and the candidate, the rest of the state can probably expect an acceleration of Denver’s deteriorating financial situation. The city faces a declining tax base and a highly unionized group of about 7,200 full-time employees, with around 3,100 of those subject to collective bargaining agreements and most of the rest part of a civil-service system. This, of course, doesn’t even include the unionized education lobby. Election there requires a high degree of union deference.

This is the tired blueprint of large inner cities across the nation, as they are managed by politicians who arrive with union backing and municipal entitlements. Eventually, the employment policies and privileges have to be paid for and the steady escalation of costs begins to cause manufacturing and jobs to head to the suburbs. At that point, these political structures tend to reflexively grasp at higher fees and taxes to support their voter base.

Denver has been saved somewhat by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights requirement that voters approve tax increases, but this is still largely inadequate because it doesn’t address raising fees and regulatory overload.

Since Denver is prohibited from running a deficit, it has, over the last few years, gimmicked its way through with temporary furloughs, postponing equipment purchases and slowing down new entrants into public safety positions.

This is a lot of work, so in March Denver City Council members voted themselves and the mayor a 6.6 percent raise. Denver’s mayor presently earns a salary of, $145,601 per year (less than Grand Junction’s city manager, by the way) with 13 City Council seats presently earning $78,173 per year. Additionally, they receive about 30 percent more in benefits, according to The Denver Post.

Temporary fixes for the budget cannot last and meaningful spending cuts do not seem to be on the table. In March, the Post quoted a University of Denver professor as stating, “It isn’t simply do we need to raise taxes? It goes way beyond that.” This is the kind of thinking that led to the thriving metropolis of Detroit.

It’s not just professors who think taxes need to be raised. The Denver public library system is already contemplating asking voters to approve a new property tax specifically for the library. This is a popular solution in urban areas where there are a lot of voters who rent.

Additionally, the city is caught up in the $7 billion boondoggle of light rail. However, the Regional Transportation District that operates light rail recently postponed a proposal to double the tax already imposed in the metro area. The doubling of the tax is needed to finish the project.

Flailing cities are problems in any state, but when they are the state capital they’re more able to affect and lobby the Legislature for bailouts like transportation assistance, housing subsidies and the inevitable grants. They can pick our pockets, right over the mountains.

Rick Wagner offers more thoughts on politics at his blog, The War on Wrong.


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