Government grows, but democracy doesn’t

Essay by Martha Quillen

Local Government – January 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN OUR FIVE YEARS of existence, Colorado Central has examined growth issues from numerous angles. We’ve printed articles about growth summits and seminars, and about census statistics and growth patterns. We’ve mused about the relationships between newcomers and old-timers, and pondered upon the cultural effects and consequences of growth.

We’ve reviewed comprehensive plans and legislation intended to “control” growth, and we’ve presented a myriad of opinions about planning, zoning, real estate development, traffic, affordable housing, 35-acre ranchettes, airports, environmental impacts, and a host of other subjects inextricably tied to our region’s sudden — and somewhat inexplicable — popularity.

But Colorado Central has certainly not been alone in its obsession with growth. In recent years, our local papers, town boards, city councils, county commissioners, state legislators, governor, and even our schoolchildren have all been preoccupied with growth.

Lately, though, I’ve begun to wonder if we might be looking at growth in the wrong way. On the whole, we tend to define growth in terms of people moving in. Yet in rural areas, it may be short-sighted to regard growth in terms of population increases.

Let’s face it — most of our local growth problems really can’t be attributed to overpopulation. Westcliffe, for example, has had an almost unimaginable growth rate in the last couple of years. But it still isn’t as big as Salida, Buena Vista or Leadville. And I sincerely doubt that anyone standing on a hillside overlooking the Wet Mountain Valley actually thinks, “Wow, this place is really getting crowded.”

Yet Westcliffe’s growth pains have been very real, as have the rest of ours.

Even though communities in Central Colorado are surrounded by vast tracks of undeveloped public land…

Even though our towns and counties are still among the smallest in the country…

Even though in some places, like Leadville and Saguache, the population is far lower than it once was…

We’re having a lot of trouble coping with growth.

But maybe that’s because our real growth has not been in population. Instead, in recent years, our growth has been primarily economic. Right now, our region’s rebound from an 1980s recession — that struck Central Colorado with more vigor than the great depression hit America — looks almost miraculous.

Though some of our towns are still plagued by declines in the mining and cattle industries, our future today appears to be a story of too much, rather than too little.

Obviously, we can’t take a prosperous future for granted (since financial stability relies far too much on outside factors). But let’s assume that we keep sailing on a strong economy. Will that serve us or sink us?

IT MAY SEEM a little strange to gripe about economic growth, but in October, at a gathering of the Western Colorado Congress in Ridgway, author John Nichols did just that. Nichols, a Marxist who lives in Taos, attributes many of our current problems to our devotion to a capitalistic system that equates progress with the production of more goods.

As Nichols sees it, under our economic system progress requires that we keep selling, producing, and developing more and more to keep our economy afloat. And thus we have to keep acquiring, and requiring, more — more money, more roads, more jobs, more four-wheel-drive vehicles, more square footage in our homes — which we get at the expense of our environment and our future.

Nichols also made it abundantly clear that he fully expects local governments to support rampant development, environmental carnage, and pure unbridled greed.

Personally, I’m not a devotee of any economic theory, since I figure capitalist, communist, and socialist nations are all equally capable of cruelty and corruption. But I’ve got to admit that Nichols may be right on target when he presumes that our economic system tends to control us, rather than the other way around.

And he’s obviously right in observing that we keep buying and building more and more — whether we need it or not.

Ordinarily, however, I’d trust a strong democratic system to protect us from a government inclined toward such excess, because the citizens don’t need or want the same things. Since the whitewater guide, the Realtor, the rancher, the retiree, and the downtown merchant all get to participate, in the long run, we shouldn’t end up agreeing to subdivide the entire Mountain West or to convert it all into wilderness.

BUT IT HAS SLOWLY DAWNED on me that we don’t have a strong democratic system operating here. Instead, we seem to have developed a system where the governments are needier than the citizens. They need Wal-Marts, jetports and subdivisions. They need more employees, more laws, and more revenue — in order to keep on growing.

In Salida, we’ve added a few hundred people, and we’ve built a couple of subdivisions. But the city is still pretty small and old-fashioned.

And much the same can be said about Leadville, Westcliffe, Buena Vista, Fairplay, Gunnison, and points in between.

But in Central Colorado, our truly astounding rate of growth has been in budgets, local government, cost of living, and bureaucracy, rather than in population.

Our expenses have grown enormously. And in many of our communities, so have our police departments, fire departments, public works departments, water systems, communication systems, and administrative networks.

But at this point, it doesn’t seem like the citizens have much control over growth. Actually, in Salida it doesn’t seem like the citizens have much control over anything.

For almost a decade, Salida has been operating with a great sense of urgency. We had to put in water meters, expand utility lines, and secure easements — immediately. And now expansion seems to have taken on a life of its own. The police department requires more vehicles, the county needs a new jail, and we haven’t yet secured a proper right-of-way for our water line through Poncha Springs.

If you compare it to remodeling an old house, we’ve added on and added on, only to look over and realize that the main roof is sagging; so now we have to go back in and install supports.

In spite of all our talk about controlled growth, Smart Growth, and channeled growth, growth itself now seems to be in command. Or as Nichols would have it, the economic system is controlling us.

For Salida’s citizens, this has been a trying time. Our cost of living is up; our wages haven’t kept pace. Many of us hold on only because we bought property when prices were depressed.

NEW RESIDENTS, on the other hand, pay a premium for real estate, but often have trouble with water taps and building permits. The city has arranged meeting after meeting to resolve metering problems, but the water budget is too strained to offer much in the way of warranties.

Though the city appears to be financially secure, the citizens are offered few choices. According to the city, we had to put in water meters and extend water lines, and now we may have to buy more water rights and raise utility rates.

At this point, the issues facing Salida have become very complex. Thus, in order to proceed we have to rely upon the advice of water engineers, accountants, auditors and lawyers. Recently, the Salida City Council decided to hire a full-time planner; and there’s talk that we may need a financial director, too.

About now, it seems like Salida’s citizens have handed all control over to “the experts.” At regular council meetings, citizens go to make their complaints and comments, but the city administrator repeatedly tells them that city meetings are not the time nor the place for such commentary.

Yet there doesn’t really seem to be any time nor place for the citizens these days.

Perhaps, that’s because our council serves the city rather than the citizens, and the city is growing. Thus, the city is in constant need of new resources. And therefore, it doesn’t seem to matter what the citizens want. They will get what the city needs.

And like government administrators everywhere, from the Pentagon to the smallest town’s police department, our administrators tend to want as much as they can get for their departments and employees: wages, pensions, offices, and equipment.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

And there’s nothing wrong when the citizens protest such expenditures. Because that merely means that some compromises are in order.

But there is something very wrong when a government presumes it is supposed to put the needs of the government before the needs of the citizenry. Because that not only indicates that we don’t have a strong democracy, that suggests that we don’t have any democracy left at all.

And to lose such an essential ideal would be an exceptional shame in this case, since democracy doesn’t just go with equality and justice and all those noble concepts, it also provides one marvelous advantage people seldom think about:

When you’re trying to get something built or passed or paid for, democracy can be exceedingly cumbersome and slow (since it often takes a long time for a majority of people to agree on a plan, and sometimes they never actually do).

Though I suspect that trait makes some boards and councils view the whole democratic process as being too protracted and contentious, I think that may be democracy’s greatest beauty; it prevents us from rushing off in the wrong direction too rapidly.

In our part of Colorado, although we fear it, we have not yet covered the countryside with housing developments or even come close to paving paradise. Yet somehow that result seems inevitable, (and if Nichols is right, it may actually be inevitable).

But if that’s where we’re going, then at least let us get there slowly and democratically.

— Martha Quillen