The recession is forcing local governments to take necessary, albeit sometimes unpleasant, steps.
The effects of the recession have come up dozens of times in my conversations with local and state government officials in the past 18 months, but among their many observations, two stand out. Oneofficial in a small Minnesota city says that, because of a lack of resources, his staff can only pick two things to complete out of a list of 25 that need to be done that day — compared to 10 when he started in public works a few decades ago. The same week, a director of general services for a large Maryland county expressed the same point another way: This year, residents will finally “see” the cuts.
And see them we have, across the board and across the country. Some cities and counties, too many to count, have cut into the heart of their communities, laying off police officers, firefighters and teachers. Others are taking measures that, while uncommon, have been used for decades, such as contracting with other agencies for fire or police services. A few have been weird, like Maywood, Calif., which fired all of its full-time employees and outsourced all its municipal services when it lost its insurance because of excessive claims.
Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention, which in some cases can be credited with driving efficiencies in many operations. In other instances, necessity cannot easily birth great ideas, especially when government officials are trapped between a taxed-out public and an infrastructure that hasn’t been properly addressed or pension benefits that were promised with no money set aside to fulfill the obligations. So, cutting staff and/or services may be the only solution for some who suffer from the sins of the fathers who left the bill for future generations of government leaders.
However, a few of them are taking political risks by jabbing at sacred cows. For example, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has created a plan to cap property taxes to an annual 2.5 percent, in part to force consolidation of his state’s 566 municipalities. And, after rising to a key position in the New Jersey ironworkers union, Stephen Sweeney, who also is president of the state senate, says that the state can no longer pay for the benefits fought for by unions like his. A recent New York Times story says Sweeney is being joined by other long-time union supporters, like Oregon Gov. Theodore Kulongoski, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and New York Gov. David Paterson in demanding concessions from public sector unions.
You can argue if the cuts, concessions and consolidations are needed, but clearly necessity is a catalyst. It is also true that, while necessity is credited as the mother of invention, in this recession, necessity has simply been a mother.
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