Column: Officials should treat tax dollars as they do their own moneyWhen governments, even at the city level, regularly spend hundreds of thousands or millions, it’s easy to lose sight of what those dollars are buying — and whether it’s money well spent.
By: Virgil Swing, For the Budgeteer News
Duluth City Councilor Garry Krause cast the only “no” vote to a recent proposal to spend $90,000 for Parks and Recreation office furniture. City administers provided a reasonable defense, noting the furniture will serve more than the 10 employees it seemed at first would use it.
But Duluthians should be grateful Krause exhibited two of the most important qualities of a public official: common sense and a critical eye.
When governments, even at the city level, regularly spend hundreds of thousands or millions, it’s easy to lose sight of what those dollars are buying — and whether it’s money well spent.
It can’t be done in all cases, but councilors (and other elected officials) should examine spending requests just as they do their family budgets.
Sadly, too few public officials do this consistently. Former councilor Todd Fedora, who narrowly lost his re-election bid last fall, was often good at this. So are councilors Jay Fosle and Jim Stauber. Together with Fedora, they were the council’s three conservatives. Krause showed such tendencies in a previous council stint.
Thankfully, some councilors seen as liberals have sometimes shown an independence from campaign backers, including Councilor Jennifer Julsrud, who ousted Fedora.
In another recent vote, on whether to update civil service procedures that the Ness administration says has hampered city hiring efforts, four councilors who were endorsed by public employee unions voted against the union position. They were Julsrud, Linda Krug, Emily Larson and Dan Hartman.
I’ve cautioned in several columns about voting for candidates endorsed by public-employee unions since councilors (and school board members) are running for what are essentially management positions and should not be beholden to unions on the other side of the bargaining table.
Thus it’s heartening when councilors, especially ones new to office, oppose the wishes of a group that plays a big role in who gets elected in Duluth.
However, the due diligence of councilors should go beyond just voting this way from time to time.
They should look closely at the council packets for the agenda sessions held before regular meetings. If they do, they’ll see things like Krause saw, which seem to violate the instincts they’d bring to purchases made with their own money.
A good example of this came in September 2009, when I found on the council’s consent agenda a proposal to spend nearly $500,000 to choose a route for a paved trail to connect the Munger Trail with the Lakewalk.
The consent agenda is where supposedly noncontroversial items show up. At a council meeting, you’ll see councilors getting coffee, talking to others or taking a walk in the hallway as a clerk reads these agenda items. Councilors usually examine the packet earlier, but often not closely enough. This expense, which was unfortunately approved, should have been considered as controversial, since it was way too expensive.
Spending all that money on picking a route seemed excessive, so I researched it — and discovered that a regional government agency involved in the project had already done some of this work and made route recommendations.
The Lakewalk and Munger Trail are important public amenities, and connecting them makes absolute sense, as city money allows. Creating such a link will be costly, but picking a route — when choices are limited — shouldn’t be expensive. Some money will come from the feds, but elected officials must always recognize that those are our tax dollars also.
Sometime later I came across an expense that also seemed excessive, spending a large amount (I’ve forgotten how much, but it was a lot) to improve a parking lot across from the Government Service Center on Second Street in Duluth.
When I checked with an elected official I respect, I was told engineering tasks related to water runoff boosted costs. I didn’t check further, but I should have. If a private business or homeowner was told it would cost that much to improve a parking lot, they likely wouldn’t go ahead, would get a lower bid, or scale back the work.
We need those instincts in elected officials. They’re our eyes and ears in city (or school district, county, state or federal) government. They must be our brains also and should treat tax dollars as they would if the money comes from their family budget.
Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.