Saturday, September 1, 2007

Public Trust or Public Trough?

The fairly recent Guest Editorial comment printed below, evoked a range of reactions, so it must have found some good targets!
In reviewing this, ask yourself 'what do I do when an unanticipated monetary windfall comes my way?'.
Then follow that with the question 'What if those windfalls come more often when times are good, seldom when things are tight?'
Lastly, ask yourself, 'what if these windfalls come about as a result of my own inability to predict my income and expenditures with consistent precision and accuracy?'

The sum total of answers to these three questions describe what happens fairly often, and is most evident when the City Council is asked to approve the use of 'unanticipated revenues' for any number of worthwhile -and some purely discretionary- causes.
Most of the time, the temptation is just too strong to 'just say no'. That repeated scenario has been a blessing and a curse, depending upon one's view point, but one that rightfully deserves to be singled out as the type of government action that could benefit from more consistent discipline!
But, hey, that's just one person's opinion.

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse (bounty, gifts, donations, generous giving, etc.) from the public treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising them the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by dictatorship.

Alexander Tyler – 1770

These rather grim concerns, expressed six years before our country was founded, seem to be manifesting today through the increasing roles that money, influence peddling and corporate media play in politics – at all levels. Under these circumstances, who can blame the public from becoming cynical as each special interest actively fights for a bigger share of public funds?

In a recent conversation with a candidate for public office about issues likely to be important, I mentioned that fiscal responsibility is a big ongoing problem, especially with the local economy beginning to dip, and both the level and cost of services rising. This brought an immediate, knee-jerk reaction to this effect; ‘It’s no fun being an elected official if no funding is available’. How true!

This combination of opposing trends periodically happens during economic cycles, but this time the results could become more problematic than usual for Bellingham, due to several factors.

On the revenue side, the city has experienced large, unanticipated income increases for the last few years fueled largely from new construction, which is now cycling down. It’s so easy to get used to windfalls!

On the expense side, several large annexations are pending, which if approved will require more city-level services like police, firefighters, parks, streets and the like. Additional revenues are unlikely to come close to offsetting these new costs. Waterfront redevelopment –as desirable as that is- will saddle the city with up-front infrastructure costs that are not likely to be recovered for many years. When the County gets around to providing adequate jail facilities, more costs will need to be borne by the city. And, next year B&O taxes will be reduced on businesses by State law, meaning less city revenues from that source. Of course, there are always upward pressures on wages & benefits for public employees. Had enough examples?

It is not my point to alarm people, but to illustrate the forces at work that will most certainly impact tomorrow’s citizens and elected officials. Public funds are limited and must be carefully used, first on necessary services for the public. Public funds are often restricted to certain uses like water & sewer utilities. Others, like sales, B&O and property taxes are less restricted and make up most of the so-called General Fund, which mostly goes to pay for employee wages & benefits, plus other important things. Real Estate Excise Taxes [REET] funds must be essentially used for capital projects, subject to priorities set by elected officials. Greenways funds -approved by public vote- get divvied up according to community-wide needs and property availability. Tourism tax money gets allocated among competing parties. In the end, all public monies have legitimate purposes and use, but the perception persists that it is often dispensed from a large, amorphous slush fund controlled by those in power. In fact, this is true - at least in part!

What part of the motivation for becoming -or remaining- a public official is attributable to the desire to control the expenditure of public funds? I believe everyone who aspires to office wants this responsibility, especially the ‘fun’ part of it. The hard part also appeals to some, usually dubbed ‘fiscal conservatives’, who worry about sustaining ‘needs’ more than finding pleasure in spending on the ‘wants’. It’s no fun to say no to any worthy constituent, group or good cause that appeals to the city for help. It is fun to make people happy, partly because they are more likely to vote for you.

Sustainability is one fundamental problem that all democracies face, including the City of Bellingham. How can we sustain ourselves for the future without sacrificing truly essential services or over-taxing people? During these elections, I hope citizens are cognizant of our fiscal realities.