The recent market meltdown put the Federal and state governments on the fiscal defensive. Headlines trumpeted massive bailouts of the private sector and mid-course corrections in revenue anticipations and spending priorities. And pundits warn local leaders, “Hard times are coming. Prepare for the worst. You face some tough choices. Look at how business responds to these problems.”
We appreciate the pundits concern and will take their warnings to heart. But they need to realize that municipalities are not businesses. They do not operate on the profit motive. Those that fund and receive our services are not investors or customers. They are citizens. And the decisions that are made by local elected officials are not directed toward doing better, financially, than the competition. They are instead directed toward doing the common good.
This is not to say that local policy makers and administrators should ignore sound business principles. In fact, we sincerely appreciate the efforts of the professional public administrators, who dedicate their time, their training, their talents and their expertise to the service of their fellow citizens. Dedicated to the common good, local elected and appointed officials struggle to apply sound management principles, despite state mandates, laws and regulations that make that practice more and more difficult.
And maybe the reason the headlines don’t trumpet dramatic pronouncements of draconian cuts from local officials is because, for them, the current economic downturn is only the latest challenge that they have faced. Having engaged now for years in annual bouts of budgetary triage, this latest casualty, while meriting careful attention, does not require any major change in standard operating procedure.
As the Federal government has slashed cooperative funding programs and as the State of New Jersey has refused to honor its statutory commitment to municipal property tax relief and public school aid funding increases, local officials have thoughtfully struggled to balance local service demands with even more forceful demands for property tax relief. Sometimes, just maybe, the common good requires the public sector to look to a different bottom line.
Editorial from New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 85, Number 6, June 2008