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  • Last modified 21 days ago (Oct. 25, 2018)

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Who's left holding the bag?

Teresa Huffman’s arrest on charges of misusing public money offers important lessons that go well beyond whether she is trustworthy.

Huffman is, of course, innocent until proved guilty. That’s not true of the system that created the possibility of her guilt.

Government’s increasing reliance on quasi-private entities, largely outside its control, to achieve public objectives creates a system so tempting that even a generally trustworthy person might succumb.

The entity that replaced Huffman — Marion County Economic Development Corp. — is yet another quasi-private, quasi-governmental body just as susceptible to embezzlement as were the predecessor groups Huffman is accused of misusing money from.

We’re all well-indoctrinated in the slogan that government is evil and everything works better if transferred to private enterprise. To some extent, it’s true. Government can be extremely wasteful.

But the answer isn’t to hand over bags of taxpayer money to quasi-private groups intentionally crafted to avoid governmental oversight — a key goal in setting up the current economic development corporation.

Both it and the old Leadership Marion County and Flint Hills Resource Conservation and Development groups that Huffman allegedly misused money from represent a total abrogation of government’s obligation to fully account for every penny of tax money collected.

When quasi-private groups begin to fade away — and the egg timer on the current economic development corporation is running — someone is left holding the bag. And that bag too often is filled with taxpayers’ hard-earned cash.

Most quasi-governmental groups that incorporate as charities face scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service, including public disclosure of their books — until their annual income drops below $50,000. Then, all they have to do is send in a postcard each year. Eventually, someone ends up pocketing whatever is left from government’s original contribution.

Treading on our mistaken belief that all government is bad and all charities are good, we readily embrace a system that, instead of providing a thousand points of light, provides a thousand cracks through which taxpayer money can be embezzled or legally siphoned off by the cadre of lawyers, accountants, bankers, engineers, consultants, and others who welcome privatized functions not because they are better but because they provide them new clients.

Some quasi-private groups may seem fine. The county, for example, transfers taxpayer money every year to a maze of quasi-private charities that operate senior centers in the county. That works OK now, while the centers are active. But what would happen if they were to fade away? Would someone active in them now suddenly end up with a new camper trailer?

And why are we, the taxpayers, having to pay the overhead of having both a county agency and a network of quasi-private bodies, largely funded by taxpayer money, essentially providing the same services?

Barely a month goes by without some quasi-private group making a sales pitch to the county about why it should contribute — which it almost always does — to some laudable cause, from mental health and developmental disabilities to legal aid and advocacy for battered domestic partners.

Rather than simply forking over money in advance for vaguely defined purposes, government should instead pay on delivery for specific goods or services — and retain ownership rights to anything tangible that’s not used up.

Otherwise, Teresa Huffman will have lots of company in courtrooms of the future.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Oct. 25, 2018

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