The current deepening local government fiscal crisis, as we noted in a paper last fall, is forcing more and more communities to ask just what, exactly, is the purpose and scope of municipal government in America.

Colorado Springs, at least the views are freeNow, a fascinating story in the Wall Street Journal about Colorado Springs, CO reports some of the most extreme tumult yet.

There in libertarian “CS,” the home of the U.S. Air Force Academy and Focus on the Family, a precipitous downturn in local government revenue is prompting a fairly eyebrow-raising inquiry into just how limited limited government can get: 

  • Street lights? CS has flipped the switch on over one-third of them but allows residents to adopt a light for $100 a year
  • Police patrols? Taxi cab drivers now volunteer to back up overstretched cops
  • Trash removal? Advertisers sponsor trash cans and volunteers contract to remove the rubbish in 128 neighborhood parks
  • Neighborhood community centers? Current barebones city support will dry up at year’s end, leaving the four centers’ fate to private or philanthropic engagement. An evangelical church has stepped forward to operate one

As to what we are to make of all of all of this, one view would be to dismiss Colorado Springs’ radical cut-backs and embrace of volunteerism as just the latest manifestation of anti-government extremism in the birthplace of Colorado’s small-government movement. After all, voters almost a decade ago imposed strict limits on how much the city government can spend and last November they rejected a property-tax increase, despite warnings from city officials about a projected $28 million shortfall requiring at least a 10 percent cut in an already shrunken budget.

However, another view of Colorado Springs’ grand experiment is to see it as one of the starkest auguries yet of the coming big debate the nation will soon be having about the size and shape of government in an era not just of recession, but of demographic and structural changes and years of avoided decisions.

Indeed, if a few lively back-and-forths among readers of the Colorado Springs Gazette are any indication, the folks of Colorado Springs are engaged in a spirited and democratic—if unwitting—debate about the proper and desired role of local government in their community that is compelling because it’s not theoretical but instead occurring neighborhood to neighborhood. Some residents prefer their parks mown and litter-free, while others are happy to no longer pay for park services they never use; some residents welcome the absence of light pollution from street lights, while others fear for their night-time safety. A few astute readers question both how long volunteers will continue to step forward as the free rider problem inevitably surfaces, and whether lower-income neighborhoods—where public services like afterschool rec centers have high but less visible payoffs—have the same capacity to self-provide as affluent ones. 

All of this debate is healthy, and it is interesting that rather than cut services entirely Colorado Springs residents have sought to employ alternative modes of service provision. Such responsibility suggests that true introspection—rather than Tea Party talking points—is motivating the debate in Colorado’s second largest city. Here’s betting that many more states and localities—along with federal lawmakers—will soon be engaging in similar reflection. And here’s hoping that a good amount of such reflection will beget the sort of true innovation that can yield a platform for future growth. That would be a good outcome for everyone, regardless of political bent.