Taking the ‘business approach’ to city government


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The 10/30 edition of the Empire-Tribune recently published a story on the efforts of the current director of community services, Jeremy Allen, to find alternative sources of funding for his department’s activities, given the diversion of taxpayers’ dollars to economic development projects and the desire to otherwise reduce taxes without reducing services.

Included in the story was the following passage:

“Allen also agrees with one of the mayor’s favorite mantras: “Take a business approach to government.”

The not-so-subtle message? A business that doesn’t balance its budget and spends more than it takes in won’t be in business very long, so why should government be allowed to do it?”

(The entire story can be found here:  https://www.facebook.com/empiretribune/?fref=ts)

Dr. Malcolm Cross
Dr. Malcolm Cross

Well, Texas city governments are required to balance their budgets.  That’s why I supported modest tax increases to cover the rising cost of services nobody wanted to cut, and why the city is currently cutting spending on existing services to free up more money to pay for the increased spending on economic development, as the public demands.

Moreover, the council-manager form of government, by which Stephenville’s government is organized, was modeled after the organization of private business corporations in the hope that a city organized like a business corporation would operate with the economy and efficiency we assume private corporations possess.  In a private corporation, a board of directors, answerable to the shareholders, appoints a chief executive officer to implant its policies and manage day-to-day operations.  So, too, in the council-manager form of government, a board of directors (the city council) answerable to the voters appoints a chief executive officer (the city manager or administrator) to implement its policies and supervise the bureaucracy and its operations.

But what if we really did want to“take a business approach to government”?  We’d have to do far more than simply balance the budget with various means of money raising and cost cutting.  The purpose of any business is to supply a product or service to those who want to pay for it.  People who don’t want what the business produces need not pay the business anything.

So, for starters, we’d have to abolish all city taxes, by which people pay for city services even if they don’t directly use them, and finance city activities only with user fees, as we finance water and several other services today.  We’d need to make each city street a toll road, requiring those who drive on a given street to pay for its use, but exempting those who don’t drive on it from having to pay for it.  Those who require police, fire, and emt services would have to pay the full cost of having the city employees protect them, solve crimes committed against them, put out fires on their property, etc., while those who don’t use those services would again be exempt from paying for them. 

Of course, businesses that don’t make a profit through providing a product or service will discontinue those activities that produce losses.  Therefore, the city should abolish all departments and activities which fail to turn a profit. 

And who should be allowed to vote in city elections, and how many votes should each voter have?  In a private corporation, each shareholder gets one vote for each share of stock he owns.  A shareholder who owns 10% of the stock, i. e., 10% of the business, will have more votes than one who owns less, and fewer votes than one who owns more.  Perhaps, rather than limit the right to vote to those living within our boundaries, we should extend that right to anyone willing to pay for it, no matter where he lives, and grant more votes to those willing to pay more.

Of course, all these ideas are nonsense.  But so is the idea that government should be run as a business.  The goal of business is profit.  In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the purposes of government are to promote the people’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Perhaps we should judge Stephenville’s government and policies, as well as those of other governments, by the degree of to which they achieve Jefferson’s goals, and not merely by the size of their profits or how “businesslike” they are.

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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