Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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As the possibility becomes a probability that Routt County will not escape the national economic downturn, the deadlines for local government budgets loom. As our respective town, city and county officials attempt to quench the unquenchable thirst of all who quaff tax revenue, their mettle will be severely tested.
Yet, as with all challenges, there is opportunity.
An opportunity to return to a time before government incrementally morphed into a financial redistribution center where special interest groups seek to fund organizations ad infinitum with tax dollars.
An opportunity to return to a time when Americans relied solely on the private sector to raise capital for their businesses - be they for-profit or nonprofit - instead of seeking government assistance.
An opportunity to return to a time when government only provided services essential for infrastructure, safety, education and aid for the truly needy, and did not provide services best left in the hands of the free market.
Given the financial straits our local governments must navigate as they enter fiscal waters low on cash flow but deep in expenditures, we should avail ourselves of those opportunities by restoring government as it was originally and constitutionally designed.
In short, we should restore government as a provider of essential core services - nothing more and nothing less.
But that's the rub, isn't it? How do we, as a community, define core services?
For some, programs for the arts are a core service and should be supported financially by the government. Others view artistic culture as an integral part of life - just not one that should be funded from government coffers.
The same is true about sports. Some believe sports enrich life to a degree that justifies government treating sports programs as an essential function. Others argue sports, like the arts, should rise or fall in the private marketplace based on value as determined by consumers.
Arguably, the same can be said about all programs other than those providing services essential to the safety and infrastructure of the community along with primary and secondary education and assistance for those who cannot assist themselves. There always will be someone who steps before the podium of government and proclaims their particular program deserves public funding, and there will be those who find the proffered program not worthy of those dollars.
After all, we live in the age of entitlements with an electorate that clamors for government to provide an ever-lengthening array of services once considered the responsibility of individuals. From higher education to jobs; from health insurance to child care; and from housing to retirement income, there is always some segment of society that wants government to provide for their special interest or individual need - as long as someone else incurs the tax consequences.
Which brings us back to the unenviable task facing our local leaders, the task of deciding how to slice the tax revenue pie. And, while no two people will ever agree completely about what government should or shouldn't fund, there is one approach we should all agree upon.
Before a dime is spent on anything other than essential core services - safety, infrastructure, primary and secondary education and assistance for those incapable of assisting themselves - we must fully staff and fairly compensate those providing the core services.
The local men and women who protect us, maintain our roads and infrastructure and educate our children should be compensated at rates sufficient to allow them to thrive in Routt County - not just subsist. They should be compensated at rates that ensure full staffing of all departments instead of constant turnover that detracts from consistency while adding hiring and training expenses. And, they should be compensated at rates that are not just competitive with similar communities, but also demonstrate the degree we value their public service.
The current economic challenges present our local governments with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink the responsibilities of government compared to the responsibilities of individuals.
The wise decision is to face that opportunity squarely by beginning the process of returning government to providing core services. Otherwise, what is now an opportunity soon will be a more painful necessity.
To reach Rob Douglas, e-mail Rob.Douglas@Comcast.net