Nation rebuilding starts at home
February 21, 2011
OPINION By Roger Freberg
Around the world there are plans, strategies and formulas for nation rebuilding. Some of the basic questions are best addressed by setting priorities, not so much for what we want as for what is really needed. For example, there are basic formulas for how many police and firemen are needed per number of people living in a given area. Unfortunately, we have far too many leaders playing to small influential groups and trying to sustain a public sector structure for which funds – sometimes called revenue enhancement – cannot be obtained.
For the first time in many years, Pew Research found that Americans do NOT want the government to spend more. They don’t necessarily want spending cuts either, but they are becoming strongly opposed to raising taxes. When the food you buy at the supermarket costs more each time you shop and the price of gas seems to have no limits, nobody wants to see their taxes going up, too.
Let’s look at Wisconsin, which has been at the top of the news. The public unions are on a rampage! Do they really think that their jobs are more important than the many private sector jobs that have been lost in Wisconsin? To be honest, Wisconsin’s financial troubles are not going to be solved by politicians whose partying has gone wild. I read that some of the state’s politicians were found hiding out in a resort to avoid having to anger either their union constituencies or the voters at large by voting on budget reductions. “Just say NO!” isn’t going to work in the long term.
We are not too far away from a day of reckoning ourselves in lovely San Luis Obispo. Do you know which has a greater projected financial shortfall, the City of San Luis Obispo or our county? The answer is that both are in terrible shape, but the city is far worse off, spilling red ink like a drunken sailor. Some fairly drastic decisions will be made – probably without public input – when it all comes to a crashing halt. Here are a few things that we should think about:
1) The unfunded public pension liabilities hang over the city; but this can be addressed by not exacerbating the issue by continuing to promise what can’t be delivered. Take action today to ensure that the tsunami doesn’t grow any farther.
2) A little lesson from environmentalists might help here: reduce, reuse and recycle. The city should immediately reevaluate everything they do based on the current realities and eliminate all obvious extravagancies: executive cars, city credit cards, travel and nonessential purchasing. Any business person who survived the 70’s and early 80’s can help provide direction here. This isn’t complicated.
3) Consolidation is the key to public sector survival. Everyone is going to be asked to do more with less. Why can’t we combine police and fire department administration? Why do we need the fire department responding to every heart attack when we have ambulances with trained EMTs?
4) Let’s face it, all the pet projects will probably have to go. It doesn’t matter whose ‘ox is going to be gored’ because everything should be put on the table for consideration. Money for open space needs, senior centers, skateboard parks, soccer fields and all those charitable donations to environmental groups and such need to be re-evaluated. Charity starts at home, but only if you have the money.
5) It’s an old concept, but “Zero Based Budgeting” seems a good starting point for city planning. We need to ask, “If all we have is a dollar, how do we spend it?” I understand how hard it is for politicians to make the tough calls, especially if their economic understanding is minimal; but it is time to figure it out. I think putting together a group of experienced business people (no politicians, no public employees) and give them the authority to act and make changes might be like budgeting by machete, but it would be a good starting point.
6) Another concept passed around a lot was measuring by ‘results.’ Are we getting what we are paying for? Okay, now let me pick on the school system. Remember that big Measure A assessment we voted on? Did that new tower at Laguna Middle School help children learn and grow?
7) I don’t think the public sector has figured this out yet, but ‘technology’ allows you to do more with less. Why do we need so many clerks and secretaries (who hide behind barriers when anyone comes by for ‘service’) when most people write their own emails and do most of what was formerly done by staff for themselves? My Ph.D. wife has to take the time to look up the ISBN numbers of the textbooks she’s ordering for her classes, because the bookstore staff won’t do it anymore. Is that a good use of an expensive employee? Technology allows for increased management ‘span of control,’ yet school district, city and county, and Cal Poly administrations (just look at the growth in ‘Student Life’ over the past two decades) have all grown unabated. Lots and lots of fat to trim.
8) Cuts shouldn’t be across the board, but logical. Why cut teachers (who actually do the work), without dealing with the vast armies of administrators first? One administrator job can pay for a bunch of teachers. Remember when your school had a principal, a janitor, a nurse, a librarian, and a secretary? The student-faculty ratio at Cal Poly hasn’t changed in 30 years, but administrative costs in the CSU have gone up 5 times more than faculty costs during the same period. Does anyone know what a Vice Provost does?
Let me say that I am not an anti-union person or against public employees, per se; after all, I am married to one. I have always been a strong supporter of unionized workers, specifically private unions like the Teamsters that know the value of proper representation but ensure that the golden goose can survive. Public unions are not only a threat to business and the economy, but also to the rest of us who are the ‘goose’ ripe for plucking! Changes are coming and it’s better to look at things honestly today or face – as business folks say — a very ugly correction.
Instead of talking about “cutting” government programs, let’s ask each one to justify its existence from the ground up. Why is your program more important than another one or should it exist at all?
Nation rebuilding starts at home and it starts locally.
Roger Freberg is a San Luis Obispo resident who is using his retirement to write a culinary-inspired blog, comment on important local events and occasionally enjoy getting sued for his journalistic excellence.