Everyone should voice their opinion when their city is spending funds

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Dr. Malcolm Cross
Dr. Malcolm Cross

A few days ago, while surfing the net for inspiration for this column, I came across a rant in Erath County Rants and Raves which could inspire an entire book of commentary.  It deserves to be quoted in full:

My rant is about the Stephenville City Council’s current plans to pass an $80,000 water study. Do we have an extra $80,000 laying around? Did they go out to take bids? (NO) Why is the study necessary? We already have a study we paid for that addresses our water issues through 2050. If there is such a pressing need for this study – why wasn’t it included in the current budget? Last year we were able to roll back taxes a half-cent which came to about $66,000. $80,000 is not pocket change as council members are acting like it is.  We need to be extremely frugal with taxpayers’ money!  We could roll back taxes another half cent instead of paying for an unnecessary study.Maybe we could actually use that $80,000, we seem to have, repairing our streets.  But, a $80,000 study that pads the pockets of some consultant just isn’t an urgency at this time.  Please consider voicing your disapproval to a city council member and speaking out at the next City Council meeting on July 7th.

Now, I know nothing of this particular issue and I cannot in good conscience say that, were I still on the city council, I would vote against this study. But whether the idea of spending $80,000 on yet another study is good or bad, Ranter does inspire the following thoughts.

First, whether you support or oppose spending money on the new study, you should go to the relevant council meeting and voice your opinion.  Speaking up won’t guarantee you’ll be heard, but failing to speak up will positively guarantee you won’t.

Second, over the next few months, the city council will be working on both the budget and the tax rate.  Everyone with an interest in public finance should attend the council meetings and committee work sessions where taxes and spending will be discussed, and participate in the discussions when possible.  This Tuesday and Wednesday the City Council will be holding budget work sessions from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Bella Vita Ranch.  Later on this summer there should be more work sessions at City Hall.  You should attend as many sessions as possible not only to contribute to the discussions but simply to better observe and learn how budgeting—determining not only spending but tax rates as well—is done.

Third, you should remember that at the local level there is a greater relationship between taxes and spending then there is at the national level.  The federal government need not balance its budget.  In fact, the Constitution doesn’t even require  the federal government to have a budget at all.  Moreover, the federal government can always borrow or print whatever it wants to spend, so it can keep taxes low and spending high.  But city governments are required by state law to balance their budgets, control their borrowing, and limit themselves to a narrow range of taxes for revenue.  Of course, they cannot print their own money, making the amounts they spend limited by how much they can collect in taxes and fees.

Fourth, you can increase the chances you’ll be taken seriously if you request not only tax cuts but spending cuts as well.  In my 14 years on the city council I noticed that the public was more prone to demand the former than the latter, and this is to be expected:  Most people like getting more money, whether through lower taxes or increased spending, than they like being deprived of money, whether through higher taxes or reduced spending.  In fact, it’s safe to say I was voted off the City Council precisely because I supported modest tax increases and spending cuts to make it easier for the city to meet its legal obligation to balance the budget.  So if you can go before the city council with coherent and rational ideas for cutting spending, you will be taken with the utmost seriousness if for no other reason than that you will prove to be most rare.

By the way, the single most fascinating thing about the rant which inspired this column is the identity of  Ranter.  I’m not going to say who it is, but I should note that Ranter has been one of my post persistent and consistent critics, and was one of the strongest and most enthusiastic supporters, in the 2014 election, of the Mayor and his allies running for City Council, including the current council member who defeated me for re-election.  But now she’s turning her scrutiny on those she wanted elected to the council, and urging others do so too, so at least she’s consistent.  I support her call to action with as much enthusiasm as she worked for my defeat.  Let the fun begin!

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