June 27, 2017

A Conservative City Council?

Dr. Malcolm Cross

“Vote to Keep the Council Conservative.”

This seems to be the slogan of a group of four city council candidates seeking victory in May’s election, including three incumbents and a fourth candidate running as their philosophical ally.

So what should a conservative city council do? 

There’s no official definition of conservatism, and hence no definitive prescription for “conservative” public policies.  However, most conservatives, as well as responsible moderates and liberals, understand that:

  • The creation of any new government program, or the expansion of an old one, always carries both costs and benefits:  The new or expanded programs may provide more necessary, or at least desirable, services.  Yet the costs of government may increase, thereby requiring higher taxes, and the size of government will grow, thereby making it harder for citizens to learn what’s going on and hold government accountable. 
  • Higher taxes can finance more services, yet those who must pay the taxes may have less freedom to use their own money as they see fit.
  • As a general rule, no doubt with exceptions, the more conservative someone is, the more likely he will be to choose smaller government conferring fewer benefits, yet costing less and allowing for more accountability, over bigger government that offers more benefits, yet costs more and makes accountability more difficult.  Moreover, he’ll forego the greater benefits offered by higher taxes and choose the greater freedom created by lower taxes.

With these ideas in mind, I’d like to recommend that those council members who consider themselves conservative, and who want others to consider them conservative as well, to advocate the following policies in the campaign and pursue them in office should they be elected:

  • Have the council take back the power to determine how economic development funds are to be spent.  The council currently allows the Stephenville Economic Development Authority to make some expenditures without city council review.  But as noted in an earlier column, the SEDA is appointed by the council, and includes some members who aren’t even residents of Stephenville.  So, in essence, we have a situation in which unelected decision makers who don’t even live in the city are spending some of the taxpayers’ dollars.  The council should assert the principle that only democratically elected city council members, all of whom must be city residents, should decide how Stephenville taxpayers’ money is to be spent. Limiting the authority to spend to the city council, rather than extending that power to other groups, will make it easier for the voters to know who’s spending how much on what, and make better decisions at the ballot box.
  • Encourage use of current private events centers—City Limits, Hardaway Ranch, etc.—before considering the construction of a new events center.  If a new events center is deemed needed, encourage efforts to have it built and run privately, rather than have the city build and run it itself.  The latter course of action will require either tax hikes or spending cuts in existing programs to finance any new center. Moreover, the creation of a new government owned and operated events center will expand government’s size and expense, thereby creating more difficulty for the voters who want to keep track of what the government is doing.
  • The city council should use what reserves it has, beyond those it must retain by law to finance programs should economic or financial catastrophe strike, to finance capital projects only, and not operating expenses.  Using excess reserves to finance capital projects will reduce the need to borrow money to pay for them, and thereby reduce the need to raise taxes to repay the incurred debt, with interest, in the future.  But using reserves to pay for operating expenses will simply postpone the day when taxes must be raised to meet future operating expenses.
  • The council should, whenever possible, hold the line on taxes and expenditures, while remembering the old adage, “A stich in time saves nine.”  While there should never be an increase in expenditures simply for the sake of purchasing short-term popularity with the voters, sometimes expenditures must be needed to meet the demands of the law, or inflation, or the need to fix problems early before the cost of fixing them later increases.  Under those circumstances, the city council should enact only minimal tax increases, accompanied by maximum candor in explaining the need for them.

Some of the better features of Texas law include limits on what sort of taxes city governments may collect and how much city governments collect, and requirements that budgets be balanced.  These limits impose a natural conservatism on city governments.  One hopes that whoever is elected to the city council this May will go beyond what the law requires to promote governance as conservative as possible consistent with meeting the needs of the city.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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