(This blog has been updated several times today as new information became available.)
Make no mistake about it: The city of Colorado Springs has money problems.
The city has turned off streetlights, cut bus service, put its police helicopters up for sale, let go of dozens of employees and yanked about 400 trash cans from neighborhood parks.
But the situation isn’t so dire that regular folks are being encouraged to use their own lawn mowers to cut the grass in the city’s parks.
City officials say the call for residents to help mow the parks is a falsehood that has been repeated by the national media and fueled assertions that conservative cities like Colorado Springs are choking themselves to death.
It started when The Denver Post reported earlier this month that “neighbors are encouraged to bring their own lawn mowers to local green spaces, because parks workers will mow them only once every two weeks. If that.”
Kurt Schroeder, the city’s maintenance, trails and open space manager, said the report is wrong. In fact, he said, the city discourages residents from mowing the parks because of the potential liability to the city government.
“That’s one thing that we don’t want happening, and it’s for the protection of those civic-minded folks who think that they could help out in that fashion,” he said today.
“We just don’t want anyone to put themselves in an undesirable situation where they may be held liable for damage or injury to someone else,” he said.
Post reporter Mike Booth said he stands by the story and that no one has asked him for a correction.
“That may be what they’re saying now,” he said. “That’s not what they told me at the time.”
The city’s parks officials “may have changed their story after they got a lot of flak for it,” Booth said.
“I have detailed notes from my conversation with the parks and rec department,” Booth said in a follow-up e-mail. “Kurt Schroeder said, and I quote, ‘we’ve changed adopt-a-park so volunteers can now mow . . .’ When I asked if that meant volunteers would be checking out city equipment to do the work, he said, no, ‘it has to be their own equipment.’”
After the story in the Post, the information reached a national audience.
“Residents are being asked to bring their own lawnmowers if they want the lawns trimmed in the park,” ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer told viewers.
National Public Radio, which labeled Colorado Springs a “politically conservative city” where voters “rejected a bid to triple local property taxes in order to close a budget gap” repeated the information Sunday.
“Neighbors are being encouraged to bring their lawn mowers to local parks next summer to cut the grass,” NPR reported.
After ABC News aired its story, city spokeswoman Sue Skiffington-Blumberg said the report was entirely accurate.
“Everything they reported is a fact,” she said at the time. “If they were trying to make us look bad for entertainment value, that’s one thing. But these things that they reported on were accurate. Does that make me happy? No. It makes me very sad, but it is true.”
In an e-mail sent this afternoon, Skiffington-Blumberg said asking residents to mow the city’s parks was an option still under consideration as recently as a week ago.
“While we have not yet asked people to bring their mowers to the parks, Kurt and (Parks Director Paul Butcher) both have said it is not out of the question,” she said. “If something has changed in the past four days regarding that perspective, I would defer to the Park Management team. As of a week ago, the option was open for consideration.”
Earlier today, Schroeder said residents were never encouraged to mow the parks.
Schroeder said civic-minded residents can still help the city by adopting a park. Under the Adopt-A-Park program, volunteers are asked to pick up trash, report graffiti and remove weeds, among other chores.
“We can work with people on a number of different ways, but we certainly don’t want someone to just go out there and begin to mow their park,” he said.
“Please do not just show up with your lawn mower.”