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Don’t trim the meat
and leave the fat

If you’re looking for the latest tirade about bloated government frittering away taxpayers’ money, you’ve come to the wrong editorial.

We hate government waste as much as tea party activists, but this week’s sermon won’t win friends and influence people among the Sarah Palin (or Sam Brownback) for President Club:

Taxes in Marion County, including its cities and schools, probably aren’t high enough. That’s right, folks. Read my lips: We need new taxes.

Hard as it is to admit, the physical and social infrastructure of our community is crumbling. Roads, streets, and alleys can’t continue to rot lest they take the whole community with them. Washboard, pothole, and dip-infested routes absent storm sewers jar not only those driving them but also budding entrepreneurs who might consider investing in our future.

An unbelievable number of structures —businesses and homes — are in such deplorable condition they have begun attracting undesirables. We don’t mean minorities. We mean, as someone at a public meeting termed them, “rednecks” — aimless, underemployed people who contribute little other than additional burdens on law enforcement and social services.

We’re well past the stage at which we can solve such problems by pointing with pride to those who plant flowers or paint storefronts. We need a serious infusion of capital, both public and private, to clean up or tear down substandard properties, and we need the political will to actually follow through.

We’ve done a great job creating things we can see: pools, auditoriums, water treatment facilities, and the like. What we also need are essential things that are out of sight and out of mind, like replacements for ancient pipes that foul water between treatment and tap.

The time to hang new wallpaper instead of fixing our leaky roof has passed. And lest we create a future generation overpopulated by even more rednecks, we need to begin regarding education less as day care that entertains with sports and activities and more as a place where hard work by teachers, students, and — importantly — parents can be the ticket out of economic doldrums.

Jobs follow skills. The fact that Marion County’s work force possesses relatively few is a key reason for the county’s plight and an indictment of an education system valued more for winning games than for winning minds.

Teachers, who deserve merit rather than scheduled raises, have a tough job. A majority of students in Marion-Florence (51.3 percent) and Peabody-Burns (58.7 percent) officially are impoverished. These are ghetto-like numbers. Wichita Northeast Magnet School has 54.3 percent. It’s little wonder test scores are better in Hillsboro (40.2 percent) and especially Goessel (32.6 percent). Only Centre (38.5 percent) is an anomaly. Paying more for administrative overhead than for actual teaching is intolerable.

Relatively minor increases in mill levies now will let us avoid hanging a millstone of debt — and inaction — around the necks of future generations.

We’re not asking to grow government for government’s sake. Before increasing taxes a fraction of a mill, government must eliminate waste and focus all its efforts on long-term investments, not temporary quick fixes or things that are popular rather than needed.

Government’s job should not be to make the lives of government workers most pleasant with big raises, better parking spaces, featherbedded jobs, or unnecessary assistance.

Most workers in Marion County will get raises far less than the 1.7 percent increase in the cost of living this year. Government workers should be in the same boat — or, dare we suggest, sacrifice a bit and be honored for it.

Businesses in Marion County have to get more work out of fewer workers, combining jobs and reducing payroll to stay afloat. Government should do the same.

Government needs a specific plan that foresees a specific future and focuses all of its efforts in that one specific direction. Expenses that don’t directly contribute need to be eliminated.

This is budget season. Taxes and spending for next year are being set now. As taxpayers and voters, we bear responsibility, too. Instead of arguing for pet projects and being concerned only that the mill levy doesn’t increase, we need to insist that government has a forward-looking plan and never veers from it.

If that plan requires a minor tax increase now to avoid greater expenses or debt down the road, we have to be willing to listen.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified July 18, 2012

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