Local government: What is essential?

Cal Beverly's picture

I pose the big question in the headline above so that we can begin a discussion about what we can reasonably expect from our local governments. This is part one.

Before that, let’s focus on one single word that forms the basis for all the laws of economics: Scarcity.

Economist Thomas Sowell (the wisest man in the Western Hemisphere, in my opinion) puts it this way: “What does ‘scarce’ mean? It means that what everybody wants adds up to more than there is. ... There has never been enough to satisfy everybody completely.”

That means that scarce resources have to be allocated to meet an overwhelming universe of wants and needs. How we do that allocating is determined by our ideas of what is “essential” and what is merely optional.

Our differences of opinion on which goods and services paid for by public tax money are essential and which are optional gives rise to the various political parties and local controversies.

Before we go farther, let’s see if we can agree on this point: The number of local taxpayers — the source of much of local governments’ tax revenue — is finite, and so is the amount of money they have to turn over to local governments.

That’s scarcity at work. Local taxpayers don’t have unlimited money to give to finance an unlimited amount of local government expenditures.

If you think otherwise, you need to stop reading this and go back to playing with your personal pot of gold at the end of your personal rainbow — and hope Obama’s IRS doesn’t discover you and your riches.

So, can we also agree that local governments tend to spend whatever amount is made available to them, whether on essential or optional things? I mean, when was the last time Peachtree City, Fayetteville, Fayette County or the Board of Education cried out, “Stop sending us money! We have too much; we can’t spend it all!”

Can we also agree that governments — like most of us private citizens — in times of plenty tend to spend money for things that would not even be considered in times of hardship?

Well, no, only the first part is true, not the latter part, is it? Just look at our national and state governments, for example. Governments follow the First Law of Downhill Snowballs: They keep on rolling, getting bigger, gathering up more and more detritus and becoming more and more dangerous to whatever lies in their path.

My friend, Fayetteville Mayor Ken Steele, believes I suffer from too much gas (“bloviating”) and need to get out a little bit more to find out how government really works. I reply ruefully that my problem is that after about 40 years of reporting on all manner of governments I DO understand exactly how governments work, and that is the cause of my distress, not gas.

Excess gas has some readily available and relatively painless remedies. Alas, there is no quick or painless medicine for excess government.

So, what government products and services on the local level do you consider “essential”?

My premise is that individuals gather together and agree to give up some degree of their individual freedoms and allow themselves to be governed in order to gain the benefits available only to organized groups. “To provide for the common defense” is perhaps the first and foremost example of that agreement.

In my hierarchy of essential government services, I put Public Safety at the head. If government does nothing else, it must keep our persons and our property safe from attack, confiscation and destruction.

But there are limits even for funding Public Safety, aren’t there? In a city of 36,000, should the police force have 56 members, or 96 members, or 32 members? You are right to say, That depends. It depends of what the costs are, what constitute the local enforcement challenges and what the taxpayers are willing to pay, among other things.

Same goes for Fire and Emergency Medical Services. Do we want to pay for a fire station and ambulance within a 5-minute drive from every house in Peachtree City or Fayetteville, or can we get by reasonably with fewer than that?

In fact, both Fayetteville and Tyrone have decided they can get by with considerably less than that. Tyrone is a town of over 6,000 residents, yet it has no municipal fire department or emergency medical service.

But there are firefighters and EMS personnel in Tyrone, right? Yes, paid for out of Fayette County’s budget, not Tyrone’s.

But ask anybody — Tyrone has one honking-active recreation department and its own active police department.

Fayetteville goes a different route. It has police and fire — but not EMS; it relies on the county for medics — but no recreation program per se.

Peachtree City back in the 1980s decided to pull out of the county fire and EMS departments and go its own way. Thus, Peachtree City residents pay for its separate fire/EMS and police services and a recreation program larger than most governments many times its size.

Choices, choices, choices — most made during times of growth, expansion, good times and overflowing tax coffers.

But what about now?

More next time.

[Cal Beverly has published The Citizen since its creation in 1993. His first reporting job was in 1969.]

ssidenative
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Quit complaining, start paying...

Just posted this over on another story...Mr. King, just in cased you missed it:

Being nice, let's all assume that Mr. King's ultimate motivation is to make PTC a nicer, more livable, stable and safe place to live and raise a family.

That said, it's clear that he would - if given the choice - refuse to fund PTC infrastructure needs, cut personnel/salaries in city government, and refuse to at least maintain the current levels of amenities and services of the city.

So, Mr. King, how does one position mesh with the other? It doesn't. If you want to damage PTC irreparably, if you want to lower living standards to Clayton County/DeKalb County/third world nation levels, just continue to push for zero investment in the things that make PTC stand out. Recreation? Cut it to the bone. Police? Fire some officers.

The result? A broken down shell of a city that once was a wonderful place to live.

Mr. Squirrel had an excellent point - being one of the best places to live costs money, and it's up to PTC citizens (and their children if necessary) to make the necessary investment.

Certainly, proper procedures, checks and balances, etc., must be in place. But Mr. King, if this city were to follow your aversion to anything and everything that carries a cost, it would within months start an inexorable, irreversible deterioration.

Mr. King, if you want to pay lower taxes, move to Coweta County...or Liberty County (look it up; taxes are really low there). Buy you a few acres, go off and live by yourself, and have a ball with all the money you save.

But if you want to live in PTC - one of the best places to live known to man - quit bitchin' and start paying.

Mike King
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ssidenative

Your statement concerning motivation is correct, but from there you err mightily. I challenge you to find where I've mentioned a refusal to fund infrastructure or reduce the quality of life I've enjoyed for 24 years. My objection is and will continue to be the waste in our local government.

Are you saying that it was a nearly $14M budget for public safety that made Peachtree City what is is today? Do you really see it necessary for four to five patrol cars, three fire trucks, and an EMS vehicle at each fender bender? Where do you draw the line at the costs of local government? You obviously have no qualm about passing it on to the next generation. Or is it because you belong to that portion of society that relies upon the sweat of others?

Surely, you realize that it was private enterprise that provided you with the amenities you currently enjoy.

BTW, I recently purchased my farm out in the country.

cmc865
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Cal, you put a spin on things too.

You make out that the citizens of Tyrone have these services and don't have to pay city taxes on them,,, yes this is true, but tell the other side of the story too. These citizens pay a additional tax for the county fire fund and the county EMS fund. The citizens in Fayetteville still pay for EMS through the additional EMS fund tax they pay on their tax bills too. PTC residents are not double taxed. We do not pay these additional taxes instead opting for a flat city tax to pay for all our services. Liberal media spin always causes a stir, but I guess that's what sells papers. Good job on that.

citizenal
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Feels Sooooo Good

Finally, we get to hear some open discussion about what is reasonable and necessary. To listen to Beth Pullias we don't have enough as it is so we certainly cannot consider cutting or shrinking or reducing anything - and anyone who doesn't agree can move - so there. (By the way, I hear she is considering a run for City Council) I think you have hit the nail on the head, Cal, we already pay more than most. It is time for our leadership to, well, lead and balance the budget with the revenues (not reserves) they have and stop all the whinning!

You can spend more in good times and you HAVE TO spend less in bad times. It is all about leadership.

intheknow
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Cal,

While you ponder appropriate levels of service for Public Safety, let me set some of the record straight for you. Fayette County Emergency Services (the County Fire and EMS agency) was formed in 1983, after merging several different organizations.
Peachtree City didn't "decide to pull out of the county fire and EMS" in the 1980's as you've stated and I've seen mentioned more than once. Peachtree City Fire Department was actually formed in 1966, WELL before there was a Fayette County Department. Also for a long time Peachtree CIty provided EMS to a good portion of the county, as well as providing fire protection to a portion of the county for several years as well.
Just correcting a statement that insinuates that Peachtree City Fire Department broke off from an organization that we actually predate. I'll let you get back to your assessment of types and level of services, strategic station placement and response criteria, etc... as I think you'll be headed with this blog, in determining "what is essential" (to you). You might want to bring Mike King in on this, as he's proven to be a vocal expert on all things Public Safety related, in these forums.

Mike King
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inthe know

Since the crux of Mr Beverly's editorial has to do with what exactly do the citizens actually need versus what is nice to have and optional, and since you brought me into this, a couple examples of what I call fluff.

Recently the PTC Council elected not to continue funding the dive team which left the city maintaining an ample amount of dive related equipment which includes boats and a jet ski that you still have. I'm sure local governments with substantial waterfront might have a need, so why not let them go?

bad_ptc
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Mike King, dive team equipment

Mike, if I'm not mistaken the "dive equipment" was to be excessed to Henry County. Henry has a dive/rescue team.

As for the 'other' equipment I know at one point PTCFD had three jet skies w/trailer donated to them some years ago. They have a four man inflatable with a small outboard and a small molded rigid 'bass' boat with a small outboard and another trailer; all of which are several years old.

There is no doubt maintenance costs associated with such items but I would venture that those costs are minimal at best.

It was discussed at the Council meeting that the boats and jet skies would remain for special events like races and 4th of July activities on Lake Peachtree. I did see them on Lake Peachtree on the 4th setting up the safety area.

Do you, or anyone else, know what other watercraft/dive equipment PTCFD has and what their annual maintenance costs are? I don’t know the answer but would be interested in finding out.

Mike King
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bad_ptc

The dive team equipment transfer has been placed on hold at the behest of Councilman Sturbaum, but I would argue that the costs of maintenance would not be minimal. My point to intheknow was to show that there is fluff within the department, despite his views to the contrary.

I don't currently have specifics, but I would point out that a proposed $14M budget (FY2012) for public safety for a city of 34K is simply excessive. For example, pretty much all police cruisers and fire department trucks are driven home nightly outside the city limits. Keeping them within Peachtree City would have a positive effect for us, not Senoia, Tyrone, etc.

roundabout
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Diving and safety costs

I don't remember any such need for an equipped dive team in PTC. If looking for a body wouldn't they normally be drowned anyway by the time a team could possibly get there.
Have a few certified swimmers on the force.

If your number for public safety is correct, $14,000,000, for 34,000 population, would it not be more understandable to quote that per household as to cost, about $1,500 each?
As much as the church gets for low wage earners!

Don't raise our taxes---just assess a FEE!

intheknow
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Bad_ptc

Yes, the proposal is to give the dive equipment to Henry County FD from what I’ve been told, as they would be the only Dive Team left on the southside, making them the only Dive Team we would be able to call. So instead of being able to put Divers into the water in 10-15 minutes, we’ll wait an hour or two, should someone go under in one of the lakes.
We’ve never had “three” jet ski’s, did have two for a while under a common agreement for such where you only pay annual maintenance fees and trade them in. Eventually we obtained the “one” we presently have through a donation from Yamaha. We also have a jon boat and inflatable Zodiak boat with two small outboards, both carried on one trailer. These are used more for events on the lakes and for use in flood situations along with our other team, the Swift Water Rescue Team, so they don’t go unused.
Annual maintenace is minimal on the three craft, with much completed by FD personnel and the mechanics at Public Works, with some items sent out. Wouldn’t be proper to not perform maintenance of the equipment entrusted to us, and the watercraft must be always ready to use.

Mike King
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intheknow

The net result of going under for 10-15 minutes or an hour or so is the same. Thanks for making my point about the equipment being nonessential.

Now should one want to really experience savings within the realm of fire/EMS, why not consolidate all county resources at county level?

bad_ptc
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Mike and the $64,000 dollar question

"Now should one want to really experience savings within the realm of fire/EMS, why not consolidate all county resources at county level?"

How about consolidating all duplicate city and county resources at county level?

Does PTC need its own taxpayer funded Library, Development Authority, Recreation Department or Water & Sewer Authority? Don’t the cities of Fayetteville, Tyrone or Brooks have grass that needs cutting too?

It's a fact that the PTC Police and Fire departments account for just under half of the city budget and are large targets but there are many duplicate services between PTC and the county.

As with all things, it's a matter of who gets to control the spending of the tax money and NOT who could spend the tax money more efficiently.

Look at the PTC 2010 vs. 2011 budgets under the headings of “Professional and Personnel Services” and you’ll see that PTC is essentially ‘contracting out’ large chunks of work to private firms. Couldn’t consolidating those services with those of other cities within Fayette County realize even greater savings? There’s no question that additional money could be saved but there’s that ‘control’ thing again.

Just for fun Google, “Privatizing Rohnert Park struggles to save public safety” from the Watch Sonoma County or “City Council Might Contract Out Public Safety Services” from the Sierra Madre Weekly. If you didn’t see the city name mentioned you’d think they were talking about PTC in terms of % of budget spent on such services. Read the comments too.

cmc865
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cosoladation cost more. look at the numbers.

Refer to my statement above. Consoladation does not make taxes go away. Citizens would still pay two additional taxes....the county ems tax and the county fire tax which is more than your paying now. Do the research.

cmc865
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cosoladation cost more. look at the numbers.

Refer to my statement above. Consoladation does not make taxes go away. Citizens would still pay two additional taxes....the county ems tax and the county fire tax which is more than your paying now. Do the research.

Mike King
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bad_ptc

EXACTLY! Many currently employed by local governments will object vehemently because they might just have to compete for their jobs, but in the economic climate we now experience, we must consider and consolidate where appropriate solely to safeguard credibility of municipalities not to mention dwindling tax revenues.

moelarrycurly
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Dive team equipment vote

has been delayed till fall, at Councilman Sturbaum's request and council's unanimous approval. PTC still has it.

Cal Beverly
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Partly correct, but partly spin

I was sitting in the old City Hall meeting room (you remember the original strip?) in the early 1980s when Fred Brown, David Good, Jim Savage, Jack Barrett and Howard Morgan — with Frances Meadors as city clerk taking the minutes — voted NOT to participate in the consolidated county services. It was a considered decision to spend more city tax money to fund a fire/EMS separate from the county.

IT's true that PTC had a mostly volunteer fire department from the get-go, and that was part of the city's unhappiness with the county direction, which wanted to move away from reliance on volunteers and go mostly with paid personnel.

PTC wanted to keep the volunteer aspect of the city department and chafed under the county rules. The county transitioned to that mostly paid group in the 1980s while current County Manager Jack Krakeel was an assistant to (name escapes me — was it Larry Smith?) the County Fire/EMS head.

The earlier start-up of the PTC department is accurate as far as it goes, but not very relevant to the issue at hand. With the PTC Council vote, where there was county participation before and joint operations, there was now a stand-alone city department, funded entirely by PTC taxpayers.

You characterize the transition as a continuation of prior years; I characterized it — then and now — as a deliberate divorce from consolidation.

Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, I make no determination in this discussion. That really is a matter of individual opinion.

As for "essential," what's your definition?

intheknow
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Bad_ptc, Mike King & Cal

Yes, the proposal is to give the dive equipment to Henry County FD from what I’ve been told, as they would be the only Dive Team left on the southside, making them the only Dive Team we would be able to call. So instead of being able to put Divers into the water in 10-15 minutes or less, we’ll wait an hour or two for divers to arrive, should someone go under in one of the lakes.
We’ve never had “three” jet ski’s, did have two for a while under an agreement, where we only paid an annual maintenance fee and traded them in each year. Eventually we obtained the “one” we presently have through a donation from Yamaha. We also have a jon boat and inflatable Zodiak boat with two small outboards, both carried on one trailer. These are used more for events on the lakes and for use in flood situations along with our other team, the Swift Water Rescue Team, so they don’t go unused.
Annual maintenance is minimal on the three craft, with much completed by FD personnel and the mechanics at Public Works, with some items sent out. Wouldn’t be proper to not perform maintenance of the equipment entrusted to us, and the watercraft must be always ready to use.
As far as “what is essential”, I guess it’s up to each individual, but how do you quantify or qualify “essential”. If having the ability to improve survivability of a cardiac arrest, which requires certain skill sets, medical equipment and drugs, but most importantly, sufficient personnel and rapid response which equates to having enough personnel close enough to intervene and provide the necessary medical intervention. I’m fairly confidant, the persons whom have received this appropriate timely care and are still alive because PCFD had all these factors that made the difference, would attest to them being “essential”.
“Essential” would be having sufficient number of personnel on the scene of a fire to effect a rescue of trapped occupants. The only way you can achieve that is to have strategically placed stations with sufficient number of fire suppression crews able to respond. If stations are spread out to thin, or without sufficient personnel, odds are greatly reduced for a potential positive outcome.
“Essential” could be having enough personnel to rapidly and effectively respond and extinguish any commercial fire, limiting fire loss and potentially saving a large taxpayer (local industry) and employer from leaving and losing both local jobs and taxes. Or maybe essential is achieving a better Public Protection Class from the Insurance Services Office (I.S.O.), the organization that not only rates all 33,000 US fire jurisdictions, but also individually rates all large commercial parcels for the insurance industry. This can have a major effect on reducing rates for individual commercial properties, potentially drawing some industry with lower operating costs (insurance) and better protection – Peachtree City is the highest rated agency in Fayette County with an ISO Class 3.
Cal, as far as the comment you make of “decision to spend more city tax money to fund a fire/EMS separate from the county”, I might point out to you, that actually not that many years ago, Peachtree City residents paid about the same or close for ALL their city taxes, as County residents were paying for JUST their Fire Tax. This has changed in recent years, but then again if you want the best, and I know I do for my family, it does come at some price. Part of the problem with PCFD for many years was just in catching up, as staffing didn’t grow at the same pace as population and call volume did. Apparatus replacement and equipment replacement was just as bad, with PCFD personnel operating even with firefighting gear and helmets 20 years ago that didn’t even meet standards for use in the US, stuff that was marketed for third world countries. It has come at some cost to bring the department up to standards, but the citizens can be proud of the quality product they now have. Peachtree City residents still get the most bang for the buck when it comes to city services and public safety.
Much of what modern fire service organizations do is plan, budget and implement services to meet potential incidents or disaster, to protect the public and the public’s best interests. Joe Citizen doesn’t usually know what equipment, manpower or other resources are required, the FD determines what, at the most cost effective denomination is required, and submits to their elected officials for approval. Peachtree City doesn’t have “fluff”, as I wouldn’t consider any FD running two-man engines and one man ladders and squad companies “fluff”, when the standard is for four or more personnel on each truck. Having trucks that actually run and operate isn’t fluff, just operational readiness.
Most citizens don’t give a hoot about their Public Safety, until they need it, then they expect the best possible. Consider your Public Safety departments as “insurance”; they are there when you need them.

Mr. King,
As far as your 14 Million for FD/EMS and PD, that’s 49.3% of the total city budget. Isn’t the primary responsibility of Local City Government to provide Public Safety? Being the primary responsibility, at just less than half of the total budget, is that too much? As I’ve pointed out previously to you in these blogs, you really need to get a grip, with other area cities having annual budgets in some cases in excess of 100 million, PTC’s 27 million budget is minor in comparison. Just this past week, the newspapers had stories about East Point having political turmoil over their proposed $114 million dollar budget, yes, a town of 40,000 with a budget four times the size of Peachtree City. Griffin with a similar size population I believe has a city budget somewhere in the $90 million range, and I believe I pointed out a few others the last time I researched similar sized Georgia cities and posted here. These other similar sized cities typically have three to four times the employees of Peachtree City, something our politicians have often commented on, once they met officials from other Georgia cities, and found we really always have done more with less.

I won’t even comment on your vehicle comment, as that’s been beaten to death, and you just don’t get it.

As far as consolidation goes, we’ve crossed this road several times before over the years, it actually was a win for some, but a lose for others. Fayette County has wanted to take over our fire and EMS for a long time, and time-and-time again when researched, PTC residents would come out on the losing end, ultimately paying more in taxes and at the same time under most potential proposals, actually losing services – so much for a savings.

Mike King
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intheknow

Sadly it is you who needs to get a grip on reality. Peachtree City is currently sitting upon build out with no appreciable growth on the horizon. Yes, this year's $27M budget is affordable, but explain the projected growth in the cost of local government over the next five years. Do you really expect the citizens of Peachtree City to pay for a $32M budget in the out years?

Any government 'streamline' conducted in recent memory has ultimately cost more in the long run with the same if not less services provided. It's simply the nature of the beast. Can anyone honestly state that if the public safety budget for Peachtree City were capped at $12M, would the average citizen be less safe? I, for one, would not realize any difference(except in the amount of taxes I pay).

I would much prefer that the Council tend to the debt they have accumulated over recent years so as not to keep kicking the can down the road.

The difference between you and I is that I consider debt an infringement upon my liberty, you sir are content to let it control you.