It’s budget time for all the local governing authorities, so it will be all about the money from now until spring. That’s when council members, county commissioners and members of the board of directors will declare their financial plans are as good as they’re going to get.
They’re never even close to perfect, because taxpayers and ratepayers can’t agree themselves on what government ought or ought not to do. Invariably, one person’s tax reduction is another’s cut in spending to a favored program or service.
Further, as much as the public would like to think that the cost of government should remain the same — or less — year after year, the economy of their own households doesn’t work that way, so there’s no reason to believe that government can do what they can’t.
Besides, one of the biggest expenses in public institutions is payroll, and the only ways to reduce that is to impose pay ceilings that encourage workers to move on to better-paying jobs at some point or letting people go whenever the budget hits critical mass.
That’s fine, unless it involves someone on whom the public has come to depend, or the loss of certain workers negatively effects a service the public endorses.
Unlike the federal government, which can cut taxes and leave the subsequent debt problem up to others, local authorities can’t do that. Their mission is to maintain fiscal and operational stability in as fair a way as possible. That means trimming here, adding there and assessing public support for both.
For local governing bodies, setting the annual budget is their toughest assignment. Not only does this process entail making some people unhappy, but the participants themselves rarely, emerge overjoyed with the results.
What the public can do to protect its interests in this process is pay attention, and not just to one or two specific areas of interest. Local officials are just getting into the new year’s juggling act, and the public should become engaged while everything is still up in the air.