Do we really benefit from municipal rivalries?

Essay by Ed Quillen

Local government – October 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

For the past three years, I’ve been working off and on at a big project called Is Denver Necessary? It started as a long article in the May 3, 1993, edition of High Country News, and schedule permitting, it will conclude as a book published next year by University Press of Colorado.

The preceding involved some self-promotion, but it should also serve to establish my credentials as a student of urban struggles in the Mountain West. In the 19th century, cities engaged in “a ruthless rivalry for commercial supremacy,” and they were quite open about the competition.

In these mellow and politically correct times, towns are just as competitive. But it would be rude and perhaps even insensitive to confess that you’re trying to grab market share from some other municipality.

Thus you’re not going to see any mayor go on record with a statement like “we’re trying to attract retail trade away from Alamosa and into Salida” or “we’re trying real hard to pull Leadville back into the Arkansas valley, rather than have it fall into the I-70 corridor.”

Actions, however, speak louder than words, and here are some actions:

1 Gunnison opposes paving the west side of Cottonwood Pass. There are the usual environmental objections, which can probably be countered with environmental benefits, since a paved road means less fugitive dust, and people are more likely to drive regular cars that get 25 miles per gallon, rather than 12-mpg 4WD behemoths, over a paved road. Yet, environmentalism is much like the Bible — look hard enough, and you can justify almost anything on environmental or biblical grounds.

The other Gunnison concern is that if it were easier to get into Taylor Park from Buena Vista, then Gunnison would no longer be the portal for a valley that attracts thousands of campers, anglers, sight-seers, etc., each year.

Taylor Park is 230 miles from Denver if people go through Gunnison, and only 155 miles if they pass through Buena Vista.

With pavement, might there be a desire to keep Cottonwood Pass open year-round? Could Buena Vista become the portal for Crested Butte? Will traffic that might have gone from the Front Range to Monarch be sidetracked away from Salida?

It makes me wish I’d paid better attention in geography classes, so I’d have a better idea of what could happen and what the real issues are. I do know that the paving of 13 miles of twisting mountain road isn’t the real issue.

2 St. Vincent’s Hospital of Leadville opens a clinic staffed with a doctor in Buena Vista.

Glade Hamilton, the administrator of St. Vincent’s, can talk all he wants about how “we’re just providing another option” and that they’re not trying to take patients away from other hospitals.

The simple truth is that Hamilton needs more patients in order to meet the payroll, pay the light bills, and still turn a profit, and by installing a clinic in Buena Vista, he’s expanded his hospital’s “catchment zone.”

His new patients will largely come from the Salida Hospital (okay, it’s actually the Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center, but even if they adopt a pretentious name, there’s no law that says I have to use it), whose administrator has noted that urban hospitals play this game all the time: Persuade more doctors and clinics to affiliate with your hospital, so they’ll send you more patients and you make more money.

This is the free market at work in health care. Under the circumstances, with so many hospitals depending on patient volume for their very survival, it’s surprising that the medical industry hasn’t discovered the economic benefits of starting an epidemic.

Or perhaps it has. Preventative medicine is lax in this country, and we stand at an unimpressive eleventh place world- wide in life expectancy. Critics say the U.S. can’t support a comprehensive health care system — even though every country with higher life expectancy rates does just that. So…

Have we chosen poor health over maintaining good health because it pays?

Obviously, small local hospitals can’t do much about a national problem encouraged by an educational system that turns out more specialists than family practitioners, plus an insurance industry that inadvertently promotes hospitalization over routine doctor visits, plus a government that prevents nurses, EMT’s and other health technicians from supplying health maintenance systems.

But if small communities really could compete on health, rather than patient load, maybe we’d see something like this:

Serving 292 regular patients, the Buena Vista Clinic reported that 240 patients remained absolutely healthy through October. Of 35 patients with chronic conditions, 30 improved, two were hospitalized, and three remained stable. Furthermore, Buena Vistans required only 42 patient visits and 6 hospitalizations last month. Thus, currently, Buena Vista stands 20 points above Salida, and 25 ahead of Leadville in the 1999 Colorado Health Marathon.

Unfortunately, however, competition does not always build a better mousetrap.

3 Some folks in Fairplay are pushing hard for a regional airport in Park County. Granted, there might be some people who moved to South Park in the hope that someday they’d get to live under frequent and regular 110-decibel roars from low-altitude jets. However, I haven’t met any such people.

This jetport would presumably serve the ski trade in Summit County and perhaps even Eagle County. There might even be flights year ’round.

Look ahead 25 years, and Fairplay could have 10,000 people, because jets need ground crews, deplaning passengers need hotels and meals, and some enterprises need good air connections. U.S. 285 might be four-laned all the way from Denver, and Breckenridge might be an easy drive through the Hoosier Pass Tunnel after Fairplay becomes the regional hub.

But right now, airports already play a large competitive role between small cities. Recently, for example, the Buena Vista airport has been seeking Chaffee County funding by pointing out that funds have always been routed toward the Salida airfield.

4 Salida’s city government has done everything it can to accommodate a bigger Wal-Mart. With Salida getting 2.64 percent of Wal-Mart’s gross in taxes, or about $640,000 a year, it’s entirely understandable if city officials drool a bit at the idea of doubling the store’s size.

But Wal-Mart officials brag on how their stores serve as regional magnets, so a lot of that money would not come from passing tourists, but from central Colorado residents attracted to the expanded shopping opportunities in Salida.

Thus Salida would gain in sales-tax revenue as Buena Vista, Saguache, Westcliffe, etc., fell behind.

5 The Cotopaxi Cut-off — the shortest route from Chaffee County to Custer County — remains unpaved. It’s in Frémont County, which understandably prefers that Westcliffe people perform their city errands in Ca$on City, rather than Salida. Frmont County would not benefit at all from improving the Cotopaxi Cut-off, and so in April, that road provides excellent Class IV mud-running.

Why are our municipalities so competitive?

One good guess is sales tax. It’s the primary form of financing municipal governments. The reason towns want to annex isn’t to acquire property-tax revenues, but sales-tax revenues.

Every election year, we hear candidates promising to “run government like a business.” Well, it seems obvious that our public enterprises are run like businesses. They go after market share in the form of tourists, shoppers, sick people, and frequent fliers.

But will that translate into better schools, police departments, streets, libraries, water systems, and all the other things we expect of local government? That’s the real question, and I haven’t seen an answer to that.

— Ed Quillen