Priorities of local government — Part III
I shifted one word in the column title, from “essentials” to “priorities.”
That’s the shift that some local governments need to make as well: Determine what local government services are absolutely essential and then prioritize from that point.
In my first column, I put “Public Safety” at the head of the list of absolute essentials. “If government does nothing else, it must keep our persons and our property safe from attack, confiscation and destruction,” I said in Part I.
But since the combined resources of any organized community are less than infinite, citizens cannot afford to have their income taxed to the extent that would provide an armed officer and a trained medic stationed at every house in the community. Thus choices have to be made: How many officers can we as a group afford, given our other financial obligations, how many medics, how many firefighters?
Then we move on down the list: How many public employees are required to support this primary function and what can we afford to pay them, based on the market value of their services?
What would be the second highest priority? You would expect that Priority One would receive the most public funding, wouldn’t you? For example, in total, the current budget in Peachtree City adds up to about $12 million for police, fire and EMS. That’s out of a $26 million budget. So that’s about 46 percent of the total city budget being spent for public safety. We can argue about whether we can get by with less, but the total shows an adherence to an absolute priority.
So then, logically (and at the risk of simplifying the argument) the second most absolutely essential local government function would receive the second highest level of funding, right?
In Peachtree City what receives the second highest level of funding?
If you said Public Works, you would be wrong. Public Works keeps streets passable, public lands cared for and public buildings inhabitable. But that otherwise essential function does not show up as Number Two. Public Works — an absolutely essential local government function — comes in at no better than Number Three on the city’s priority list.
Nor are all the City Hall clerks and administrative staff and managers in second place. In fact, added together, the categories of executive services, administrative services and financial services — all the little behind-the-scenes office work that keeps a city’s paperwork machine running smoothly — comes in at about $2.5 million, slightly behind Public Works’ $3.16 million.
So what is the Number Two “absolutely essential” service deserving of the second-highest expenditure of our hard-earned Peachtree City tax dollars?
It has a fancy name: Leisure Services. It’s mostly publicly-subsidized recreation; part of it is the city’s library.
I could make a passionate case on behalf of a library being near the top of the “nice-to-have” list. I could not and would not make any such case for recreation facilities and recreation personnel being the third-most important public tax expenditure in any city in this economically strapped nation.
Under our democratic republican form of government, we choose representatives and empower them to make those decisions on our behalf. In an ideal community, those who run for elected office make clear what their governing priorities are and we choose the ones most representative of our own sense of public priorities.
Our elected representatives in Peachtree City just authorized a half-million dollars for a plastic bubble over a year-round swimming pool, all paid for with our tax dollars. How many of our 36,000 citizens ever set foot inside that bubble? And why are my tax dollars being spent for a plastic bubble? We go from “tennis welfare” to “swimmers’ welfare.”
This would NOT be my definition of “absolutely essential.”
This is my definition of “bloat” and “waste” of taxpayers’ money.
A word about that much-used and never-proved “property values” argument: If that fancy swimming hole has to lose its roof and be open only during the summer months, and if that slices a thousand dollars off my amorphous “property value,” I can live with that.
The economy, Mr. Obama and the tax assessor have already done more damage than that to me and my property. And seem poised to inflict even more.
In fact, the essence of my argument of essentials and priorities has to do with realistically determining what we as a community can live with and what we can live without, and then electing representatives who share those values.
As much as absolutely possible, I want them to stay out of my wallet. I’m glad to pay a reasonable amount of taxes for police, fire and EMS. I’m amenable to a bare-bones, stripped-down City Hall administrative staff.
But if I want to go swimming, I’ll swim in my homeowners association-funded pool or I’ll take a cold shower. But I will not ask — indeed, demand under force of law — that you pay for me to float under the bubble.
And, by my way of thinking, any public official who spends public money for such “bubbles” should be ashamed. Voters this fall will get to decide which are “bubble” candidates and which are seriously essential.
[Cal Beverly has been the editor and publisher of The Citizen since its first issue in February 1993. He has covered news in Fayette County since 1982, and in this part of Georgia since 1969.]