Local government: What is essential?
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.]