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Keeping up is hard to do

Essay by Martha Quillen

Politics and modern life – July 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

LOOKING BACK at the letters I’ve written in the past year, it occurs to me that I haven’t said much about local politics. Instead, I’ve written about the Holocaust, the logic (or lack thereof) of arguments, postmodern reality, the history of millenialism, the origin of various holidays…

Although I’ve frequently related those topics to local issues — a necessity, since I haven’t really gone anywhere else in the past year — I’ve seldom focused on local concerns. I wrote a letter about the new Salida plan, and a little bit about a proposed golf course, but that’s about it.

Yet there hasn’t been any sudden shortage of local controversies. Recent proposals regarding water, subdivisions, and forest service plans could probably keep a commentator engaged through the next decade — even if he totally ignored local elections, retail development, government expenditures, schools, art, recreation, mining, ranching…

On the contrary, local disagreements seem to be multiplying like guppies. And the concerned citizen has — at any given time — a multitude of impending issues that he should be aware of.

In a recent issue of The Mountain Mail, there was a guest editorial about the removal of a “notification of neighbors” clause in Chaffee County’s subdivision exemption resolution, a letter about tree loss in Salida, a letter about a proposed school land trade, a letter about the upcoming election, a letter about proposed water purchases, and a plea that more people attend meetings regarding the Rio Grande Forest.

Not addressed by letters in that particular issue — but nonetheless of imminent import to Salidans — was an ongoing attempt to raise funds for our bankrupt school district, a brewing controversy regarding the Cottonwood subdivision near Poncha Springs, and a host of matters handed down from on-high — such as school testing, gun control initiatives, and a Federal grant to put police officers in our school.

From what I see in newspapers throughout our region, the same is true in South Park, Gunnison, Leadville, the Valley, and the Wet Mountains. The specific issues vary, but we’ve all got water issues, development issues, funding problems.

Apparently, the days when working at a rural newspaper meant listening to the reporter(s) fretting about whether there would be anything whatsoever to cover are over.

Yet once upon a time in Colorado’s small mountain towns, subdivision exemptions were a fairly rare thing (as were subdivisions), construction workers had to keep busy mending roofs, and almost everyone knew all of the local real-estate agents.

When Ed and I moved to Kremmling twenty-six years ago to staff the Middle Park Times, several of the half-dozen or so retail stores in town were open by appointment only. We covered the town board assiduously, but oftimes the story was the same: “Meeting adjourned due to lack of quorum, board members present were…” I recall one memorable Kremmling Planning and Zoning meeting when a board member actually fell asleep while the minutes were being read — whereupon it was decided that town planning could wait (perhaps into the next decade the way things were going back then).

When we came to Salida twenty-two years ago, it seemed like one really bustling place. But it still exhibited some of that slower, more relaxed pace associated with rural living (endearing to inhabitants but doubtlessly exasperating for outsiders) — like stores that didn’t open on time, and cars blocking intersections as drivers chatted with passersby, and clerks busily engaged in conversation with the first customer in line.

In short, not so very long ago, time was not quite of the essence here in the mountains of Colorado.

And Salida offered, I think, the best of many worlds, not urban, not suburban, and yet not so remote that you had to drive a hundred miles to buy a bagel.

But I think that’s changing — rapidly.

LAST MONTH, I answered a letter by Slim Wolfe, which was about my May Letter From the Editor. Normally, I wouldn’t do that because I agree with something that Chuck Green of the Denver Post once said at a press convention — that the letter-writer has just one letter in which to express his views, whereas the editor has all of the editorial pages in every issue.

But since I didn’t actually disagree with Slim, I figured it would be fair enough. I had written about Nazi Germany, authoritarianism, and how people oftimes just go with the flow, and because of something I said about German freedom fighters in the ’30s and ’40s, Slim wrote about the importance of activism and the people who fought against fascism and injustice in this country. Slim praised marchers, protesters, and dissenters, and I can certainly go along with that.

In actuality, I’d like to go a step further and applaud all of those people who get involved in local issues and actively participate — even though it’s not part of their job and they’re not interested in running for office — because I’m well aware that it can be frustrating, and it’s time-consuming (and I’d bet half the time they feel like they’re beating their heads against a wall).

I’m extremely grateful for the people who speak out at public meetings, to the people who write letters to us, to the people who write letters to local newspapers, and to the people who express their views on the radio — for without them I don’t think I’d be able to gain any perspective on the issues facing us today.

And I’m equally grateful to all of the people who have fought long and tirelessly to keep some of Central Colorado’s water in Central Colorado — for without them I suspect we’d be talking about preserving brown space rather than green space.

So I guess what sparked my reply was Slim’s implication (very light, I might add) that I could do more — or should have done more — or that anybody, anywhere should have to do more.

WHAT REALLY IRKED ME is that I suspect he’s probably right. But at the same time, I’m beginning to think the very worst thing happening in Central Colorado isn’t growth, or sprawl, or traffic. It’s the issues, it’s the rush, it’s the rapid pace of change, it’s how much time and energy it takes just to be an adequate citizen in a place where everything is metamorphosing. It’s modern America creeping in; it’s living in a place that doesn’t work quite right — whether it be the health care system, or education, or technology, or government — but a place that sure costs one hell of a lot more.

Lately, I’ve had four or five friends announce that they think it’s time to move to Wyoming, (I’m sure Wyomingites will be thrilled). One of them lamented about a lot near him that had sold for $40,000, “a gully really, just plain worthless; I don’t see how you could build anything on it.”

Another friend told me, “these new people moving in want an awful lot of things, and Salida’s going to give it to them. Before long, taxes are going to go up, and we can’t afford that. None of us can afford that.”

One night we were driving back to town with Ray Pershbacher and I commented that you could sure see a lot more lights out there, and he said, “You know what I worry about? I worry that some day this valley will be completely full.”

— And I had to smile because I definitely know a lot of people who think it already is.

In the Mountain Mail June 8, County Commissioner Frank McMurry said, “As many of you are aware, there are various views as to the direction that Chaffee County should take in the future. There are those who view the county in a negative light and propose a shutdown of economic growth by denigrating the current economic resurrection and success we have experienced during the past year.

“We need to focus on the needs of the citizens of this county and provide the infrastructure to accommodate the good growth we are currently experiencing…”

So do you know what I think?

In spite of all the hype, I think we have a lousy economy. The gap is growing between the rich and the poor; we have too damned many cyber-millionaires; workers are falling behind.

Although we won’t know the whole picture before the new census is tabulated, according to a recent report by Salida’s city planners, household income in Salida is actually going down. Whereas housing prices in our region have more than doubled in the last decade.

So meanwhile what does President Clinton give us?

Well, he’s given out student loans — even though it’s a well-known fact that in a market economy prices generally rise to what the market will bear. In other words, if the poor are paying $500 for prescription drugs, and the government gives them $500, the price of drugs will rise by $500. Of course, the government imposes sanctions to prevent instant profiteering, but such grants are usually inflationary nonetheless (which is part of the reason that tuition and health care costs have risen so dramatically in recent years).

Clinton has also given us police officers — sort of. Eight years ago, Clinton promised to supplement police protection so he offered small towns two-year Federal grants. Thus Salida got more officers, and now Salida has accepted a new two-year grant to put two new policemen into the schools. Of course, when that grant runs out we will have to pay for those officers — just as we pay for the other officers Clinton gave us.

The United States is called the richest country in the world because it has the largest Gross National Product, but the workers who help produce that product are not profiting. The middle class is dropping out.

Currently, it seems as though we’re trying to convert Colorado into feudal Mexico — into a system of padronĂ©s and serfs, into a land of wealthy land barons and their reluctant servants. And we’ve got the resultant social problems: anger, divisiveness, and a growing political chasm.

It doesn’t really matter whether you’re one of the rich or the poor, that probably isn’t what you came here for — or, as the case may be, why you’ve stayed here. I think most of us probably share the same ideals about country living. It’s supposed to be friendlier, less complicated, and more laid back than city life.

IN CENTRAL COLORADO today our economy is entirely reliant on growth and wealth. Our major industries are real estate, construction, recreation, and art. Even though retail sales have been dynamic in recent years, for the past five years the city of Salida has been spending more than it takes in. And yet we need more. In Salida, we need a better water system and more water rights, and those things cost millions.

Everywhere in Central Colorado we need more of something: school buildings, jails, trails… Everywhere in Central Colorado people are fighting over subdivisions and developments. Everywhere we are putting in new subdivisions. Everywhere people are saying, “But we don’t want to be Aspen, or Vail, or Breckenridge…”

Ah, but if only that were the worst that could happen.

In every mountain town, in every newspaper, people are complaining because their government officials are giving them more subdivisions, or Wal-Marts, or fast-food franchises plus higher bills, and more outside competition — things they don’t want.

But what choice do our commissioners and councilmen and board members have? We are growing, and our communities need money. Though we could surely make do without some of the things we’re getting, some things — like water and sewer — are absolutely essential.

In spite of Commissioner McMurry’s words, this is not a healthy economy. Today, if the national economy falters, we are in serious trouble — because relying on a superheated growth economy is a dangerous thing. This is not a Field of Dreams, and the operative political argument should not be, “If we build it, they will come.” What if we build it — the subdivisions, the schools, the golf courses, the reservoirs — and they don’t come? Who’s going to pay for everything in that case?

We’ve grown complacent after surviving the 1980s, but back then the recession was merely regional. Locals sold their art in Aspen; contractors built homes elsewhere; we could survive because our neighbors were still rich.

Now, many of our tourists and new homeowners are retired and living on investments. At this point, the citizens of Central Colorado — even those of us who look upon stock as living, breathing beasts — are reliant on the market, on the national economy, on Alan Greenspan.

Therefore, even if you move to Wyoming, you can’t escape. All across America, the workers are getting poorer, and there are more millionaires buying bigger and demanding better. (And even if you’re a millionaire, there’s probably a billionaire next door who wants to put a private jetport next to your swimming pool.)

MANY HARD-WORKING PEOPLE in Salida can barely afford their water bills. At a recent council meeting, Mayor Jaime Lewis said we could set up some kind of system to take care of hardship cases. Lewis is a nice guy, but he’s missing the point. The people who are having trouble paying their water bills are homeowners. They don’t want to rely on charity; they don’t want to fill out paperwork. They merely want the cost of living to stay within the range of the average income around here.

Although rising interest rates may slow this economy down, high rates are going to hit those who are already struggling the hardest.

Today’s economy has got everybody at each other’s throats. And although the solutions the politicians give us — loans, grants, low-income housing, medical supplements and hardship deferments — serve in the short run, in the long run they merely drive up prices.

Grants, whether state, federal or private, are particularly problematical and trendy. One year a town gets a Women’s Resource Center, then it slips away, and a few years later it gets a Sports Center, but that goes bankrupt, and then it gets a theater… Because, unfortunately, everybody seems to like to give grants to start things, but not to keep funding them.

And grants have made a mess out of our schools. Schools should buy what they need most, not what some foundation or corporation is funding. In Colorado, we add art and music programs, then slash art and music programs, we add charter schools and then take them away, we add tech prep but take away teachers. We’ve got schools with fancy computer labs that barely have a roof; we’ve got schools with tennis courts and multiple field houses where half the students can’t pass a literacy test. The way we fund our schools today is so complex that nobody can figure it out.

At this point, I’ll admit that I think the simplest solution to most of our current problems is to increase the income tax on corporations and the very wealthy — if for no other reason than to make them curb their bizarre charitable spending. It’s amazing to me that we worry about politicians taking money from the Chinese and oil companies, when it doesn’t seem to bother us that the largesse of corporations and foundations is determining our school curriculums, and at the same time deciding whether Americans will be putting their own time and energy and funds into museums, or reading programs, or art displays, or rehab centers.

IN ALL HONESTY, I don’t know what we should do about any of this. Economies are complex, and they can’t be adjusted overnight. But it strikes me that we need to start a diologue; maybe we should all read Malthus and Keynes, maybe we should all march on Washington (although I haven’t a clue what our picket signs should say).

But at the very least, we have got to stop our politicians from patting themselves on the back about what a great economy they’re giving us — and somehow get it across to them that an economy that doesn’t serve the citizens is not a great economy.

— Because if we don’t, you can bet on one thing: With things the way they are in our region, no matter what anyone says in a campaign, whether they be liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, they will approve more developments that we don’t want, and spend more money that we don’t have.

For right now, those outside developers and national chains have the money, the power, and the lawyers.

And perhaps more importantly, those outside interests can serve the financial needs of our local governments — which is definitely something that our citizens, who are now far poorer than the national average, can’t do.

— Martha Quillen