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  • Last modified 23 days ago (June 27, 2018)

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Dollars and sense

As local governments begin determining how many dollars they’re going to take from us, it’s a good idea to give back a few cents of common sense.

Elsewhere on this page is a well-intentioned letter pointing out the supposed financial plight of Marion’s senior center. Senior centers aren’t charitable enterprises. They get taxpayer money, both directly from the county and indirectly in federal and state subsidies.

Are those taxpayer-provided amounts inadequate, or have they been co-opted?

Parked outside the Marion center most days are two county-owned vehicles. They appear to be rarely used and have been described as such at county budget hearings.

Yet, when the director of the county’s department on aging, which oversees the centers, goes on out-of-town trips, rather than take one of these vehicles, she often uses her own car.

That lets her submit expense claims at more than 50 cents a mile — a rate AAA says is unrealistically high unless the vehicle was purchased new and solely for that purpose, so 100 percent of depreciation would go into the cost per mile.

It’s not a huge problem, but it represents the kind of thinking that has governments threatening to cut key services, as Marion officials hinted in a budget planning session Monday, instead of looking for ways to tighten bureaucratic belts.

A much larger challenge is how to pay for ever-more-costly ambulance service. Although the county had been using a city-owned ambulance garage where some EMTs had slept while on call, it decided last year to buy another building — at a price greatly above what was assigned to it by county appraisers, just as it did when renting a building for planning and zoning.

The county then spent what an average citizen would regard as a lottery-ticket windfall on remodeling the ambulance building — an effort that apparently was inadequate, as the county now is spending several thousand more to replace air conditioning there.

Inefficiencies like this merely inflate tax bills, but such inefficiencies can be life-threatening.

Those injured in what turned out to be a fatal accident earlier this month on US-50 between Florence and Peabody had to wait 22 minutes, with one victim pinned in wreckage, for an ambulance to arrive because three county ambulances all were transferring patients from one health care facility to another.

Most of the transfers appeared to be non-emergencies. Common sense says that health care facilities should take care of their own transportation rather than relying on taxpayers to foot the bill. At minimum a public ambulance service should be able to limit them to one transfer at a time, so as not to deplete resources. Instead, bureaucrats want to yet again increase the already swelling (and, interestingly, almost all-male) payroll of the emergency medical department.

The city of Marion pays more for recreation than most cities of comparable size but gets far less — both in activities and in tourism-supporting sports tournaments — than neighboring communities where cities and school districts have been more cooperative and recreation officials have been much more aggressive in scheduling activities.

Instead of following those towns’ lead, Marion put its cemetery, of all things, under the recreation department, and annually is forking over tens of thousands of dollars to cover operating losses at the school district’s pool.

Some budget shenanigans are harder to detect without fiscal acumen. Governments have decided, in some cases rightfully, that renting is better than owning for some costly equipment. Unfortunately, sharing with other governments is rarely pursued, and the excuse of being better to rent than own often becomes subterfuge for a loophole tactic called lease-purchase.

Lease-purchase is to government what credit cards are to consumers. Rather than save up to make a purchase or go through the process of obtaining an actual loan, which might require formal vetting, lease-purchase agreements let governments spread out payments over several years — generally making items much more costly in the end — without taxpayers having to decide whether going into debt was worth it.

The big beneficiaries of this are banks, which often hold the lease-purchase agreements as if they were loans. Bankers’ support for this tactic isn’t exactly a secret. At Monday’s city council meeting, Marion’s city administrator openly stated: “If anything, working for two bankers (who are council members), I have to leverage financing.”

Then there’s the county’s quasi-public economic development corporation, an employee of which chides us in another letter this week, telling us we should say only nice things and never question government.

If we were about to celebrate May Day in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, that might be good advice. But with Independence Day approaching, we seriously doubt that our founding fathers would want us to shut up, salute, and give the equivalent of participation ribbons to those who admittedly do an admirable thing serving as officials trying to sort out the mess of local government.

We’re also struck that letter writer missed the point of last week’s editorial. It’s not that we want government to see to it that we can replace our office chair, our pants, or our technology. Those are lower priority needs. Even if we had government’s ability to determine our revenue merely by publishing a tax rate, we’d choose to spend money elsewhere rather than fritter it away on things that we can do without.

This is the time for everyone to come forward with ideas about government priorities. Marion’s administrator tried, albeit a bit pompously, to do that in a small way at Monday’s city budget meeting. However, less than half of city council members and department heads even bothered to answer a survey he sent asking them to indicate spending goals.

Still, that’s a better response rate than citizens provided when last year he tried to administer a similar survey via the city’s utility newsletter and social media accounts. Whether citizens simply don’t care or the media he chose for his survey were inadequate, we’ll never know. What we do know is that only two residents responded.

At the risk of offending letter writers employed as bureaucrats, let’s not make that mistake this year.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified June 27, 2018

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