Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Turn Out The Lights (the party’s over?)

Those who do not live in Athens-Clarke County may be unaware that the Commission is debating a plan to eliminate 1216 of the Unified Government’s 6094 streetlights (just under 20%) in what is touted as a cost savings move.

As is my wont, I have some observations on the matter:

1) Doesn’t such a plan undercut the primary functions expected of a local government, namely the provision of basic services (police, fire, sewer, etc.)? According to my math, the proposed savings to the county comes out to approximately 1/10 of 1% of the FY ’09 budget. Given the public safety implications in terms of both nighttime driving (remember all of those sparkly new - and expensive - street signs that were sprinkled around the county a while back?) and crime prevention, does eliminating streetlights to save a single penny on every $10 make objective sense?

2) The specific streetlights to be eliminated originally were to be selected through a set of criteria developed by Transportation and Public Works staff and approved by the Commission earlier this month. So far, so good. Once the actual locations of streetlights slated to fall under the budget ax came out, however, the inevitable grumbling about how the proposed deletions were distributed ensued
(see the locations by either map or list). Of course, this means that the debate will in all likelihood degenerate into yet another juvenile political squabble leading up to the Commission’s vote next month.

3) Some are blaming the darkening of our fair city on “mindless tax-slashing.” Would that it were so. I understand that point that the writer tries to make, but he errs in a important regard – the simple fact is that the Commission’s action is not based on anything even remotely resembling a tax cut. Property taxes went up substantially this year by virtue of both increased reassessments and a millage rate increase. While it is true that the eventual amount of the millage rate increase is not as high as originally proposed, to characterize it as a “cut” is absurd. The problem with government, at all levels, is not a lack of revenue, but unrestrained spending. The Unified Government’s budget for FY ’09 is many millions more than that for FY ’08. I assure you that “tax slashing” is not the culprit here.

Yes, I know that I am a broken record on these points – but so be it. And I will once again take the opportunity to note that my family lives in what is euphemistically called the “general services” district (i.e. the formerly unincorporated area of the county), getting precious little in the way of basic services. The only street light near our house is the one for which we pay Georgia Power Company every month out of our own pockets.

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4 comments:

Anonymous said...

My question is...where was everyone when the Commission agreed to make this reduction?

I was in that room, but there certainly were not more than a handful of us citizens. And of those that were there the vast majority were saying "raise our taxes" "keep the services"... this "cut" (if you want to call it that) was part of a compromise to balance the anti-taxation, our government is always a big government folks like you Jim, with the folks that are ok with paying more if it means we have more services. Electricity rates when up somewhere in the neighborhood of 10% last year and is expected to do the same this year. You can't have the same number of lights running for the same amount of money. That isn't run away government growth, that is inflation pure and simple.

But again, where were you? I know you weren't at those meetings talking to Commissioners. Why?

Anonymous said...

Amen, brother/ sister. I think people think there is a free lunch when it comes to govt. We have a bigger population here in ACC than ever before plus are getting less and less help from the feds and the state, who are quite happy to pass unfunded mandates. The local politicians will end up having to pick up the tab and take the heat for it because the feds and state guys keep running on ridiculous "I won't raise your taxes" nonsense platforms. This makes them feel good but ultimately they are being irresponsible and just passing the buck. It's at the local level where the rubber hits the road that the buck will ultimately stop. I would have though JG would have liked that, given his political predelictions :-) .

james said...

I freely admit that criticizing a proposed spending “cut” is something of a rarity for me. I will reiterate, however, that the amount involved is pocket change in the overall context of the Unified Government’s budget. If one wishes to make the argument that the Commission should have raised taxes (even more) to keep the streetlights on, fine - that is a position I can respect.

But by no means am I advocating a free lunch. I think government should perform those functions for which it is uniquely suited and that citizens have a responsibility to fund government up to that level, but no higher. The problem is that spending, and even more importantly revenue, for the federal government, the state government, the local government, the school district, etc. are all at record highs. I keep paying more in taxes, but I do not get any more in services (and if one lives in the “general services” district, those are scare to begin with). Instead, I am told that basic services will be reduced, even as my tax bill and government spending go up to pay for all manner of things I regard as wholly unnecessary (with the caveat that my views are not shared by all).

To me, this is a priorities issue. I think that lighting the streets is one of the few functions that local government is uniquely suited to perform (along with things like police protection, fire protection, water service, and sewer service) and that it contributes to public safety. The counter argument is that streetlights do not contribute to public safety in any measurable sense. If that is the case, however, the logical extension of the position would be for the Unified Government to get out of the streetlight business altogether, rather than pick and choose specific streetlights to eliminate (as an aside, I think that if we do, indeed, eliminate some streetlights, the Commission should stick with the criteria it has already approved).

I cannot agree with he idea that I forfeit my right to comment on government’s actions because I was not at a particular meeting. As the meetings are carried live on the local cable system and can be viewed online, my physical presence is, generally speaking, irrelevant. Besides, I discovered log ago that presenting my arguments at a Commission session is ineffective, if for no other reason that issues are frequently decided before they come up for votes. I prefer to communicate with commissioners via email prior to the sessions, so that they can better consider my points (not that most of them ever respond or are swayed).

Anonymous said...

"I keep paying more in taxes, but I do not get any more in services"

Inflation, anyone? ;-)

"I think government should perform those functions for which it is uniquely suited and that citizens have a responsibility to fund government up to that level, but no higher"

And who gets to decide that? The citizens through their voting choices? Someone else?