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  • Last modified 1215 days ago (July 22, 2015)

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What you don't know can hurt you

Two and a half hours, four miles, and an entire universe of public awareness away, Marion City Council on Monday was addressing almost exactly the same questions that drew protesters to a county commission forum on roads.

The only differences: Its members didn’t know it, and only journalists, staffers, and consultants — not an overflow crowd of 300 — were there to witness as the city started its all-too-familiar annual fiscal shell game, which all too often leads to problems exactly like what the county now faces with its roads.

Sipping from the Tea Party cup of no property tax increases, the council “held the line” on taxes while simultaneously proposing to increase fees, which everyone pays, by the equivalent of almost 6 mills — a throw-the-rascals-out magnitude of tax increase that technically (and only technically) wasn’t a tax increase.

It then talked about how it had borrowed too much and let its reserves dwindle too low to be able to afford necessary infrastructure repairs. As soon as it was done wringing its hands over that, it promptly — without any voiced dissent — decided to go ahead with otherwise laudable plans to contribute 10 percent of the cost of a park it really doesn’t need and to add not one but eventually two new positions to its payroll for a new parks and recreation program that will benefit as many people out of town as in.

It’s commendable for the city to exert leadership where USD 408 and adjoining entities have so obviously dropped the ball. However, the peculiarities of how government is financed make one wonder whether legislators, bureaucrats, and local officials create red tape solely to ensure their job security.

Follow the logic if you can: The city already charges more for water than peer communities do. However, increasing water rates will make it a more attractive candidate for getting grants to perform necessary work on the water system.

The city is hurting because weather and higher costs have caused a decline in electric use, on which the city makes a considerable profit. So it wants to increase refuse and sewer fees because, once depreciation of equipment is factored in, they don’t make money and, frankly, other cities charge more.

Tax increases are bad because they might chase away potential businesses, even though the first thing the city offers new businesses are tax waivers. The city apparently believes that businesses, which tend to be much bigger users of utilities than homeowners, haven’t figured out to factor those items in. Maybe those that have failed to locate here actually have been bright enough to figure that out.

Things get even stranger when you follow the money. When Marion was criticized for having unnecessarily wasteful twice-weekly pickup of trash, it briefly went to once-weekly but said it didn’t save any money because it didn’t reduce its work force. Then it decided to make the second pickup for recyclables — a laudable goal. The decision actually made money — not for the city, but for the county, which gets to sell the recyclables. The city, meanwhile, helps the county food bank find improved quarters, then goes to the county and asks it to pay food bank utilities out of the recycling windfall. Then the city pleads that it isn’t recovering all its costs with refuse and wants to increase what it charges residents.

Whatever shell you place the pea under, following the money reveals that refuse pickup is going to cost you more in part so the food bank can have its utilities paid. There’s nothing scandalous here. The food bank is a worthy operation, and refuse collection isn’t cost-effective. But the way the money and bills move around from residents to city to county to food bank and back to residents creates a rat’s nest of bureaucracy that surely must add administrative overhead while obscuring true financial accountability.

Cutting the cost of government without cutting services is the holy grail all reformers seek, and it’s not as elusive as it might seem.

Any government entity need look no further than its personnel policies to start saving money without cutting services. Most small businesses have full-time employees who work a 40-hour week, not 35. They get no more than a week or two of vacation, aren’t guaranteed seniority raises every few months, get merit raises instead of automatic cost-of-living increases, and take holidays only when work would have fallen on one of the relatively few number of holidays they allow.

Do the math and you find that following standard practices for small businesses would get at least 17 percent more productivity out of the same size work force. Eliminating automatic raises could save as much as 10 percent of the cost. Eliminating separate support staffs for each office and instead implementing shared service centers like most businesses use could lead to even greater savings. Absent such moves, the number of office workers, both city and county, have grown like crabgrass.

It’s not just featherbedding, of course. In many cases operations that were started to provide one, fairly identifiable service continually seek to expand to provide more services, which presumably will become popular enough to insulate the office from attempted cuts.

Which leave only infrastructure, and the promise of 300 people someday finally showing up to protest once the system has fallen apart.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified July 22, 2015

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