What do you want to pay for?
Last week Warren City Manager Nancy Freenock raised the specter of eliminating the city’s summer playground program in order to balance the upcoming budget in a way that avoids a tax increase.
It’s difficult to find anyone who is opposed to the summer playground program. It’s a nice thing. It’s important to hundreds of youngsters and their families and has been for more than half a century.
But, those of a dispassionate demeanor might question whether it is the job of city government in times of austerity to provide babysitting services in the summer at the expense of taxpayers.
In some ways, the current conundrum is reminiscent of the federal government during a partial shutdown, where someone in government must decide what is necessary and what is not in a period when federal spending is dramatically curtailed.
Everyone agrees that public health and security would be seriously compromised if, say, the armed forces were to be given an indeterminate leave, if air traffic controllers were sent home, leaving their radar screens unattended, if veterans hospitals were to simply roll their patients out to the curb. Those are the simple choices.
It is the hundreds, maybe thousands of other government programs, that lie between those easy ones and the easy ones on the other end that are the problem. In that gray world one man’s essential program is another’s unnecessary frill.
And, so it is with city government.
In each case, it comes down to what you want to pay for. At its core, public budgets are little different than your household budget; you seek out what you are willing to pay for. Unlike the federal government, however, city fathers are unable to use the credit card. If they need more money to maintain or add programs, they either have to shuffle funds from one area to another or raise taxes.
So, do you cut the full-time fire department, risk higher insurance rates for homeowners and businesses, for the sake of maintaining a playground program? Do you cut administration? Do you cut out leaf collection? Or, do you raise taxes?
For every politician we have ever met, even most Democrats, that last option is to be avoided like the plague.
And yet, balance sheets are very unforgiving.
For every service the city provides, for every position paid for with a check from the general fund, City Council members and the public must ask themselves the same question: Am I willing to pay for this?