Spending and Democracy

Dr. Malcolm Cross

I’m a Republican with a big R, but a democrat with a small d.  I believe when it comes to spending the taxpayers’ money, decisions on how to spend it should be made only by the taxpayers themselves or by their democratically elected lawmakers.  Nobody unaccountable to the taxpayers should have the power to spend the taxpayers’ money.  I make this point now in response to two issues that have recently assumed more importance—who determines how economic development funds should be spent, and how should the events/multipurpose center, if we ever build one, should be paid for.

The Flash Column I published two weeks ago, in which I criticized the idea that the Stephenville City Council give a private business $6,100 to buy equipment elicited mixed reactions.  On the one hand, the number of hits I got on my blog, Crosswise on Politics, after I reposted the column there indicates it was one of my more popular efforts.  On the other hand, several readers commented that my arguments—for example, the city should not play favorites in giving away money—were stale and recycled, and contributed nothing new to the debate on how to promote economic development. 

So here’s something new:  It’s not a criticism of how economic development money is being spent, but a criticism of who’s allowed to spend it, whatever the purpose of the grant.    In doing research for a follow up column I discovered what many may already have known, i. e., that the Stephenville City Council was in no position to decide whether to give the grant.  The Stephenville Economic Development Authority itself gave away the money without city council approval.  And this was all perfectly legal.  According to an article in the Empire-Tribune, the SEDA created with the passage of Prop 1 in 2015 has the power under the law to award taxpayer-funded grants of up to $10,000 without securing prior city council approval.  You can read the article itself at http://www.yourstephenvilletx.com/news/20170105/twisted-j-receives-grant-that-will-create-new-jobs.

And not only is this legal, it’s what the people voted for in the May 2015 election that created the SEDA—or is it?  I’ve checked out the campaign materials that were published online or mailed to the voters, and I found no mention of the fact that passing Prop 1 would give SEDA the authority to give away taxpayers’ dollars without prior city council approval.   To the contrary, the materials say that the SEDA Board “will be appointed by the City Council and propose projects to them for ultimate approval,” So according to the campaign materials, it’s the elected city council, and not the appointed SEDA board, which should be deciding how all the money is to be spent.

The materials go on to say that “citizens of Stephenville will not only have a strong voice for how their tax dollars are spent, but also a strong system of checks and balances within city government.”  But how can this be if the money is to be spent by an appointed board and not the elected city council members?  And where are the checks and balances in a system that allows the appointed board to make expenditures not subject to council review?  And given that some members of the SEDA board aren’t even residents of the city, what does this do for the voice of Stephenville residents?  By the way, you, too can review the pro-Prop 1 materials at the following websites to judge for yourselves how accurate my analysis is:  https://theflashtoday.com/2015/04/30/why-vote-for-prop-1/,  http://stephenvilleedc.weebly.com/, http://stephenvilleedc.weebly.com/prop-1-flyer.html, and http://stephenvilleedc.weebly.com/faq—fact-sheet.html.

Of course, whether or not the materials failed to tell us that by voting for Prop 1 we were voting to create an unelected group which could give away our money is in some respects irrelevant.  The campaign materials were not legally binding.  No doubt the provision that SEDA could award some grants without council approval is in the fine print of the bill the voters passed, and if we didn’t read the fine print, well, too bad, so sad.  Nonetheless, I think it better that taxpayers’ dollars be spent by the elected representatives of the taxpayers, i. e., the city council itself, rather than by appointed officials to whom the city council has literally passed the buck.  I would therefore recommend that the city council, to the extent allowed by the law, require that all expenditures made by SEDA be approved by the council itself in advance.  If that’s not possible, then the city council should at least appoint to the SEDA only city residents.  To allow city money to be spent by an unelected group of decision makers,   some of whom may not even live in the city, strikes me as an unnecessary surrender by the taxpayers and their democratically elected representatives of control over how their tax dollars are to be used.

And the need, or at least desirability, of having Stephenville taxpayers control expenditures on a new event or multi-purpose center, is even greater, given that this project, if it gets off the ground, will be a multi-million dollar project that will literally be set in concrete and last for decades.  As I mentioned in my column last week, it’s encouraging to read of the Mayor considering private financing for the center, but it should be kept in mind that even if the center is built with private funds from individual or corporate donors, additional funds will have to be supplied, possibly by the city, for its upkeep.  And if no private funds can be found, the taxpayers may have to pay for the entire project themselves.  A project of this magnitude will be so costly that it should not be undertaken without an election in which the voters themselves can choose what to have and how to pay for it.  And of course, when we go to the polls, we should all read the fine print.

Let the brickbats begin.

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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