Hard times spawn fiscal responsibility

Despite threats, grass in Colorado Springs parks will likely be green this summer. Sprinklers will chit-chit-chit and the children will play. You heard it here first.

The late economist Milton Friedman taught us that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Someone pays, regardless of who consumes.

Colorado Springs residents are learning there is no such thing as free irrigation — even if it’s for children.

It seems multiple readers of The Gazette newspaper have said Colorado Springs Utilities should provide free water to the parks, so the grass will stay green.

That city’s officials made national news with plans to let the parks go brown because their budget is too lean to buy water from their own utility in order to dump it on thousands of acres of Kentucky Bluegrass.

The budget is lean because people are scared and poor in the midst of economic recession. That means they buy less, which generates less sales tax revenue for city government. Taxpayers declined a request to raise their property taxes, mostly because they cannot imagine new overhead when their livelihoods are threatened by layoffs and furloughs.

The decision to let grass die has been the most controversial budget cut of all. Much of The Gazette’s feedback has been along the lines of: “The grass is for children.” And: “What about the children?” And: “Don’t we care about the children?” And: “Children are the future.”

Passionate concern for the children, and the bluegrass they desperately need to survive, led the well-meaning gadflies and politicos to suggest free water.

One problem. The water isn’t free. The utility treats the water at the expense of ratepayers — the same people who voted against a tax increase to pay for amenities such as green parks.

The water gets to users through complex infrastructure that costs ratepayers money to operate and maintain. The more water the utility transports the more cost it incurs. If the utility gives away water, it gives a gift at the expense of ratepayers.

Despite all that, the grass will likely be green.

Lower demand on a limited commodity, such as water, can reduce price. That is, in part, because lower demand may reduce the utility’s overhead.

In response to the bizarre demand for free water, Utilities officials have come up with a plan they will propose to city officials. It involves getting the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to make efficient use of water under a rigorous conservation plan.

Utilities officials may ask Parks and Recreation to improve soil conditions, use more efficient sprinkler heads, a better timing system for sprinklers, and even some xeriscaping where grass isn’t needed. By meeting conservation goals, Parks and Recreation would reduce overhead for Colorado Springs Utilities — a savings the enterprise would pass along with a discounted rate for Parks and Recreation and other major irrigators who meet conservation standards.

The substantial rate reduction, of more than 30 percent, would enable the city to water more grass with its limited irrigation budget. The program would not jeopardize bondholders and ratepayers the way “free water” would.

If all goes well, the children will have green grass and the city will irrigate in eco-friendly fashion. Hard times will do magic, imposing responsibility and reason on adults without harming the children.