Our View: Dollar Game fun but don’t expect much

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Editorial Board, Sept. 25, 2011, to January 2012

  • Scott Stanford, general manager
  • Brent Boyer, editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter

Contact the editorial board at 970-871-4221 or editor@SteamboatToday.com. Would you like to be a member of the board? Fill out a letter of interest now.

The city of Steamboat Springs wants your feedback on city services and costs. Sort of.

In reality, it seems what the city really wants from its online survey — available through Tuesday at www.steamboatsprings.net — is to show residents just how hard it is for the city to pay for much beyond essential services. That’s too bad. If city staff had focused a little less on trying to make that point and a little more on asking residents for their input, they would have better data to help in making the difficult choices ahead.

Deputy City Manager Deb Hinsvark said she hoped as many people as possible complete the “Dollar Game,” as the online survey is labeled on the city’s website. She said such public input is extremely valid and could help the city greatly with prioritizing needs.

We certainly wouldn’t discourage residents from playing the Dollar Game, but we find ourselves in agreement with Steamboat Springs City Council member Sonja Macys when it comes to the results. “I think it’s fun, but it’s not science,” Macys said. “It’s a fun, educational tool for the community to understand what items are included in the city budget and to have some interaction with the challenges that staff and City Council face. I just hope that nobody tries to use the data generated from that as a scientific tool for decision-making. That, in my opinion, would be inappropriate.”

The survey asks residents to choose from a list of city services and programs each with a specific cost assigned to it. Each time an item is selected, the available dollar shrinks by the item’s cost. The items on the list add up to $1.42, but the game won’t let you spend more than a dollar.

Once you’ve selected nine essential services such as police and fire protection, bus service and 1.5-percent cost of living adjustments for employees, you’re left with only a nickel to spend on 12 non-essential items — recreation programs, Howelsen Hill Ski Area, human resources coalition funding, summer marketing, the Tennis Center at Steamboat Springs, etc. — that collectively cost 47 cents.

See the difficult choices the city faces?

There’s no opportunity in the survey to challenge the amount assigned to each service. Police services cost 27 cents on the dollar and there isn’t a chance to trim that back to, say, 25 cents. And the picture is not complete — the city intentionally omitted the cost of administrative services, which make up about 40 percent of city expenses, from the Dollar Game, saying those services already had been cut enough.

Also, the survey completely ignores perhaps the most pressing problem the city faces — the significant shortfall in use tax revenues, which are used to fund capital projects. As sales tax revenues continue to beat projections month after month, shouldn’t the Dollar Game ask about using reserves to fund the shortfall in capital? Situations like this are why we accumulate reserves in good times.

We understand the city has a challenging job in determining which nonessential services to fund amid myriad requests. That job is all the more challenging in Steamboat, where recreational amenities and marketing have such a significant impact on tourism and our economy.

The city needs an online survey that asks residents to rate and prioritize such non-essential services. The resulting data would be really helpful in determining which of those services residents think are important to fund and at what levels. Unfortunately, the Dollar Game, focused as it is on educating you on how expensive essential services are, does not do that. Have fun with it, but you shouldn’t expect much from the results, and neither should the City Council.

Comments

Phoebe Hackman 2 years, 10 months ago

The most obvious (and second most expensive) item on this list that could and should (IMHO) be eliminated is the free bus service. Yes, it is awesome to be able to hop on a bus and go anywhere for free, but I seriously doubt anyone is going to stop riding if they had to pay, say ... a quarter. There could still be free/discounted student/senior passes, discounted monthly passes, etc. I, for one, have sincerely appreciated the free bus and have made use of it often. I would miss it, but the times they are a-changin'. How can there be so much discussion about our inability to pay a decent living wage to firefighters and EMTs when there is such an easy source of revenue staring us in the face. At the very least, a fairly painless bus fee would eliminate it from the city's budget burden. Maybe I'm missing something, but it just seems like a no-brainer to me.

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Cresean Sterne 2 years, 10 months ago

I agree with paddlefisher. We all enjoy a free ride every now and then but the bus wasnt always free for a reason. There was obviously not enough revenue back then when you had to pay for the bus. Maybe they could do what they used to and issue a orange pass to locals with a local ID. I remember having one of those laminated to the back of my ski pass. As a shuttle driver in the past it is not uncommon to get a dollar tip or more. So why not ask .25 cents for a bus ride. I would like to see them take the bus out west to the deuce, heritage and silverspur. Bet people would pay .50 cents to $1.00 for a ride out there. As an occassional bus rider, asking a small fee would not keep my-self and most people I know from riding the bus. (a small fee for us can create a a nice size revenue for the city which can bennefit all of us in the long run. Also recreation would be high on my list just because that is what draws locals and tourists here to begin with. It is not all that Steamboat has to offer but it is one of the main reasons people end up here. This will also lead to more revenue for the city.

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mtroach 2 years, 10 months ago

The reason to not ask for the $.25 for the bus is the same now as it was when they removed the fee. $.25 per rider does not pay for the system, it only discourages use. If either of you two were really here when the bus cost a quarter you would know that.

Personally I'm discouraged the city is tiring to educate us rather than listen to us with this "game". Why not put up a real device for input, and see what the citizens want funded instead of fooling around with educating us on how the budgeting process is? Afraid of what we will say?

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 10 months ago

That budget survey is an example of having city staff having too much time. Since when is the choice that police services will be 27% or 0%? Budgeting is not a choice between fully funding an budget request or giving no money. It is a continual choice of what level for each item. If city staff does not understand that and thinks it is a realistic choice between 27% or 0% for police then city staff should be replaced.

As for bus service, funding bus service between town and mountain is a far higher priority than funding barely used Fish Creek/Tamarack. If residents of that area want bus service then they need to use it. It makes no sense for residents to say they want bus service and then largely fail to use it to then expect continued bus service.

And for the heavily used town and mountain runs, it adds time to each bus stop to collect money.

Worst of all, the budget game is bugged. I had 3 cents left and it wouldn't let me pick a 3 cent item.

I was actually quite happy with my budget as unrealistic as it was. Considering that in real life there would be the additional option to trim most of the funded options to be able to give partial funding to others, the game showed me how EASY the budget choices are for Steamboat. Only reason there is a challenge is because there is so much money that so many nonessential uses think they are entitled to funding.

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Phoebe Hackman 2 years, 10 months ago

mtroach- "The reason to not ask for the $.25 for the bus is the same now as it was when they removed the fee. $.25 per rider does not pay for the system, it only discourages use." That's like saying that, for any given business, if whatever they are charging for their product doesn't pay the bills, they should just go ahead and give it away for free. And just because it didn't work in the past, doesn't mean the matter shouldn't be revisited. These are different times. I very much doubt a bus fee would discourage use now. It's still cheaper than owning a car and many people cannot afford to maintain a vehicle these days, with gas and insurance costs so high; not to mention people who have had their vehicles repossessed or been forced to sell them. I would much rather see the bus service generate some kind of revenue from the people who actually use it than see it take up 21% of the city budget, while they try to cover essential services with 3%. It's ludicrous. I've lived in Steamboat 26 years. A fee may have stopped me from using the bus back then, but it wouldn't now because things have changed. Everything has changed. Everything costs more. If you had read a paper in the last four years, you would know that.

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spidermite 2 years, 10 months ago

Phoebe is right. The "free bus" needs to generate income. Things have changed. The cost of gas is outrageous and expected to increase. DUI's are expensive too. Even the Sunday Pilot is expensive.

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Steve Lewis 2 years, 10 months ago

A good editorial. The "game" offers an narrow context of the problem by fixing the general fund only in terms of cutting services to constituents. Administrative costs and the proportion they add to expenses are off the table.

Discretionary general fund spending choices by city council are also off the table. We are starting an area plan update. Council is contemplating a substantial rewriting of the community development code. I would nix both.

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Cresean Sterne 2 years, 10 months ago

I dont think its fair to say if you were realy here. (I wouldnt post this comment if I didn't live here back then). I dont claim to ride the bus much these days. I do typicaly drive or bike to where I need to be. But when I have to ride the bus it is nice that it is there. I would pay a small fee or they could offfer a seasonal bus pass or punch card for a price. I do belive that most people who ride the bus would pay this fee. They may not be happy about it but would pay anyway because of the great service it provides. Any amount of money they can revenue is better then no money. Sorry Roach but I dont see how some kind of fee as opposed to no fee wouldn't be helpful. (that doesnt make sense). 25 cents per person can add up real quickly over a few months, especially now that the town sees a lot more locals and tourism then when the bus wasn't free. I am sure that alot of people would not be happy being charged a fee to ride the bus but these are hard times for everyone and some sacrifices will obviously have to be made. I would rather not pay to ride the bus but it wont stop me for 25 or 50 cents. Thats still cheaper then gas (unless you own a hybrid). I also don't believe that this will solve much of the cities financial problem but we should start somewhere. Maybe do a trial run for a season to see what kind of revenu it will bring in.

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housepoor 2 years, 10 months ago

How long do you think it would take to load the bus at shadow run when there is 25 people with full ski gear searching for a quarter and the driver trying to make change. I also assume side loading would be prohibited?

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 10 months ago

The big trouble with charging for bus service is that it longer longer at a stop to wait and collect money. The end of ski day buses that get filled up at one bus stop could no longer load via the rear doors. The added delays could easily require adding another bus to the mountain loops during peak periods. And these buses are carrying a lot of tourists than can either appreciate SB as a tourist city or be annoyed. And after spending so much to bring tourists here then free bus service is a cheap way to retain customer loyalty.

Or, are we going to consider a scheme which we give temporary bus passes to tourists and charge locals?

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Phoebe Hackman 2 years, 10 months ago

I'm laughing at how silly some of the reasons not to do this are. Searching for change ... bus drivers would not have to make change if riders were required to have exact change, as is the case with most bus systems. And it's not like they wouldn't know they needed a quarter until they were actually waiting for the bus. Obviously, people would be notified in various ways, just like when Starbucks adds ten cents to a cup of coffee, or like you're going to get notified when your taxes go up because the city needs more money ... again. I'm sure the media could help with that :-) Waiting to collect money ... what waiting? It seems it might have been awhile since you rode a bus outside of Steamboat. Nowadays, passengers throw a quarter in the metal container as they walk by and never even slow down. It's like poetry in motion. The tourists ... ah, the tourists. I'm pretty sure most tourists don't come here because we have free bus service. It's cool little thing they find out after they get here and they are pleased and surprised, but they don't expect it. And I'm pretty sure they don't plan their return trips based on it. Returning tourists would compare a 25 or 50 cent bus fare here to the one to three dollars they pay back home and still be pleased and surprised. So that leaves side loading. Yes, some sacrifices will have to be made, alas! There will be a bit of a learning curve for the people who don't adapt well to change, but I think they will eventually grasp the concept go on to lead normal lives. The very few extra minutes it might take to load will not impact the schedule any more than those knuckleheads who hold things up while they try to get the bus driver to tell them the entire bus schedule.

So there would some be some tweaking to do and a few minor inconveniences, but, look ... we have a viable source of revenue here that apparently takes up a big chunk our budget and it doesn't need to. I will happily give up the ability to load through the side door if it helps us keep qualified, experienced firefighters, EMTs and other essential service people in our valley and pays them a decent wage. Priorities, people.

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cityworker 2 years, 10 months ago

First off, thanks to the Pilot for this View! It's unfortunate that we are a service city and everyone wants their programs and services. A great point brought up is that you cant challenge how much is assigned to each service. Currently we are are adding jobs to help with some staff that can't do their jobs because they can't ski...why wasn't that on the survey. We've done community surveys in the past, how come those weren't used? As for the the free bus service, it's mostly subsidized by the Federal Government to the tune of %90 because its free. If we charged for bus, we would lose most of that money from the federal government.

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mtroach 2 years, 10 months ago

See, we don't need to charge 'cause the Fed's are picking up the tab. Thanks Uncle Sam.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 10 months ago

cityworker, I think you just demonstrated why anonymous posts are important because a city employee wishing to remain employed would never make such a post.

"It's unfortunate that we are a service city and everyone wants their programs and services." completely baffles me. You suggesting we'd be better off with far less money and be a city struggling to provide basic services?

"A great point brought up is that you cant challenge how much is assigned to each service." - that wasn't obvious? How in the world does the city council work through the budget if they cannot easily look at the budget for each dept and consider whether to fully fund the dept's requested budget or make some cuts to the budget requests.

And why is city ADDING staff to help "taff that can't do their jobs because they can't ski"? If people cannot do their jobs then why do they remain on the city payroll?

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Phoebe Hackman 2 years, 10 months ago

Well, there goes that plan .... I don't understand. The government subsidizes 90% of our bus and it STILL costs us 21% of our budget?? I'm...I'm.... speechless. (Thanks for the info, cityworkder. I had no idea.)

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mtroach 2 years, 10 months ago

Yvb, you have a sad life if ;

1.You are waiting in the weeds for any comment from me 2. You don't see the obvious sarcasm in my comment. 3. Your first response is to go partisan, I personally would rather see the Feds funding bus services than colonizing the moon. Really, who should I support, the Washington insider, who happens to turn his back on his wife when she is ill or the wont stay in an "open" marrage or the flip flopping ex corporate raider who made $250+mill putting Americans out of work to line his own pockets? I would like to see Washington straightened out, but NONE of these losers will change anything.

Let's really get down the the root of your problem...the warm weather has allowed cyclists to get out and enjoy the roads, that must just dig at your soul. If you need to vent more, go ahead, I'm here for you. (anonymously)

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the_Lizard 2 years, 10 months ago

The good ole USA. Debt is over 100% of GDP and we still have plenty of money to fund 90% of Public Transporation for a wealthy town like SS. with the caveat that a fee can't be charged. Maybe I'm not as optimistic for the future of this country as I thought. ..but who would of known except for an anonymous poster?

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dave reynolds 2 years, 10 months ago

for what it worth roach i remember when Johnny B's was the sidestep,the ironhorse was sheraton employee housing city market was across for united bank i mean Wells Fargo river road was a dirt road as was Burgess Creek road to the scandy..satisfied..i meant nothing by my comment it was just that a comment..oh i used to hang at the Hatch and loved Blues nite at The Cove

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Phoebe Hackman 2 years, 10 months ago

And there really was only one stop light!!!!! Oh my gosh, paddlefisher ... You just reminded me of the Putt-Off that KFMU used to put on; I think The Cove lost that nice stained glass pane at the entrance one particularly wild year, lol. Thanks for the flashback :-)

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dave reynolds 2 years, 10 months ago

lol..i forgot about the putt off..those things did get pretty wild..remember the booths at the OTP and the hot springs were free having to hike up from the lower parking lot and the brandy wine the list goes on

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