Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The “firemen first” approach to public budgets

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Anyone who’s watched local and state budgeting cycles over the years knows there’s a pretty standard protocol for scaring the taxpayers into coughing up the extra funds to do whatever it is the “public servants” in charge deem is most “vital” for their well-being.

Recently, The Weekly Standard ran a “Scrapbook” note on the subject, and it articulated the finer points of the strategy, and so I can’t resist passing it along to you.  You can find it here under the heading “Obama’s $50 billion wish list.”

It begins with this passage:

President Obama sent a letter to the House and Senate leaders of both parties last week asking for $50 billion to “address the devastating economic impact of budget cuts at the state and local levels that are leading to massive layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters.”

Here in Brunswick, recent years have shown a preference for using Coffin Pond summer swimming and Curtis Library funding as the strawmen for budget battles, and this year, freshman sports were added to the mix.  Suggesting Library cuts is a sure way to call out at least 50 opponents at a budget hearing.  The “bookies” are nothing if not organized.  And the “schoolies,” especially those engaged in sports, were almost as engaged.

Serious discussion aside, the referenced WS item simply caused this reporter to smirk in knowing agreement as the narrative unfolded.  Take this paragraph:

This is a classic instance of something Charlie Peters, the retired editor of the Washington Monthly, famously labeled the “Firemen First Principle.” As Peters explained, “The basic idea is that, when faced with a budget cut, the bureaucrat translates it into bad news. . . . In other words, he chops where it will hurt constituents the most, not the least. At the local government level, this is most often done by threatening reductions in fire and police protection.”

The article really hit home though, when it got to the discussion of specifics in the author’s Arlington County, Virginia domicile.  Local officials proposed cutting library operating hours.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Read it and laugh (edited for brevity):

….tax-receipts thanks to the housing bubble were increasing at double digit rates before the crash, and the county government therefore went on a bender. Now it whines about austerity. Our local version of “firemen first”  is a cut-back in public library hours, which the County Board has just announced in the name of fiscal discipline. This will, in fact, inconvenience and tick off a significant number of local taxpayers.

At the same time, believe it or not, the county is advertising a number of job vacancies, none of which inspire confidence in prudent fiscal management.

These include:

  • Community Inspector II (Recycling)
  • New Media Curator, Artisphere Cultural Center
  • Affordable Housing Development Specialist/Trainee

These jobs offer salary ranges well beyond what the average taxpayer earns in the private sector, but I suppose that is to be expected. I’m only surprised that there isn’t a position to study the economy of Greece so that its finer points could be brought home to make Arlington County even more prosperous.

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