Rob Douglas: There’s no free money
October 4, 2012
This week, while watching a parade of Colorado Mountain College students and local residents plead their case before the Steamboat Springs City Council for the continuation of the Yellow Line as a "free" bus service, a variation of the adage "There's no such thing as a free lunch" kept coming to mind. After all, there's no such thing as a free bus.
But that's a cheap shot. It's a cheap shot because it's clear that most of the folks who lined up in Citizens Hall on Tuesday realize Steamboat's transit service is a multimillion-dollar operation.
However, it's also clear that most who have been protesting the possible loss of the Yellow Line don't have an understanding of the total costs incurred by the city to provide bus service at no cost to riders. And, just like the protesters, several members of the City Council didn't have a grasp of the actual cost of transit services because they, like most citizens, haven't been factoring in the cost to purchase new buses on a regular basis.
Depending on the size and type, new buses range from more than $100,000 to more than a half-million dollars. But these costs rarely are brought up when discussions about how much the bus service costs because the city only pays 20 to 50 percent of the total cost of the buses. The rest is covered by funding supplied through government grants from outside Steamboat.
Just as it has for local governments all across the country, grant funding from state and federal coffers has become the magic elixir for Steamboat officials.
Need a new bus? Apply for a grant.
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Want to expand a city-owned recreation facility? Apply for a grant.
Think a new publicly funded special event would be a great addition to the calendar? Apply for a grant.
Let's face it. We've become a nation of individual communities seeking to fund our desires with the tax dollars ostensibly collected from our sister communities by the state and federal governments. In fact, most local governments — including Steamboat — employ a grant writer whose specialty is identifying and applying for grant funds.
We feel justified in seeking those dollars because we think we're returning to our communities tax dollars we paid upstream. Therefore, we act as if grant dollars are free dollars in that we rarely consider the true impact this form of funding — along with other public funding that originates at the federal level — is having on the economic health of our country.
So let's return to the original "no free lunch" adage and apply it to grant funding. Because most government grant dollars originate or are supplemented at the federal level, and because our federal government spends $1 trillion each year above what it collects in taxes, tax dollars flowing back to local governments in the form of grants are supplemented by dollars borrowed by the federal government from foreign governments and investors who must be paid back with interest.
The day will come when trickle-down grant money begins to dry up because the federal government's ability to borrow money will be reduced or eliminated and we will finally — either voluntarily or involuntarily — confront the unconscionable debts we've amassed as a nation.
And when that day comes, it will be clear that there's no such thing as a free grant, and there's certainly no such thing as free money.
Perhaps, instead of waiting for that day, it would be prudent if we demanded that our local elected representatives and government officials started to wean our community away from grant funds and toward self-sufficiency.
Perhaps, instead of expecting myriad services for free, we should begin to pay the actual cost of those services.
After all, we're one of the wealthiest communities in the nation. Surely we can live without dollars borrowed by the federal government that eventually will have to be paid back by communities far poorer than us.
Since 1998, Steamboat resident Rob Douglas has been a commentator on local, state and national politics in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado. To reach Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.