Spending plans are choking the golden egg-laying geese

Opinion Column

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Let’s play the blame game ...

— Kanye West

Even rock stars, secret agents and strip club bouncers get over the WOW! factor of their jobs after a while. Why should journalists be any different?

In the quiet of The Herald’s newsroom late Monday night, a thought came out of nowhere and hit my sleepy brain like a Skrillex bass line. After I recovered sufficiently, I attributed my failure to recognize the momentousness of this random thought to the old forest-for-the-trees defense.

Sometimes when you get too close to a story, its significance fails to register.

That’s what I told myself after it dawned on me that the taxpayers in Albany and Dougherty County are being asked to fork over a sum of money so ungodly, it could probably match the Gross Domestic Product of some small countries.

Think about this. As the governmental agencies in this community put the finishing touches on their respective Fiscal Year 2014 budgets, this is what they’re looking at: Dougherty County School Board — $124 million; Albany City Commission — $108 million; Dougherty County Commission — $75 million.

That’s $300 million, and doesn’t even take into account the $127 million budgeted for the city’s Water, Gas & Light Commission.

Throw in some of the other quasi-government agencies that local taxpayers help fund directly and other entities their local-option and special-purpose local-option sales tax dollars help support indirectly, and you see a county of less than 100,000 people shelling out somewhere just south of a half-billion dollars a year to pay for infrastructure, public safety and other services and the salaries of people who provide them.

In the face of such staggering figures, it would be easy to cry foul, to sound the fraud alarm and demand some sort of investigation. In fact, that’s what a growing number of disgruntled citizens, especially those who are paying the lion’s and the elephant’s share of those taxes, have begun to do.

The targets of taxpayers’ criticism — the city managers and county administrators and superintendents who are the architects of these staggering spending plans — generally have a firm grasp on the difference between “need” and “want,” but there is a factor to the equation that often trumps their best-laid plans.

It’s called politics.

When those with the keys to the budget purse strings suggest significant cuts that reduce those numbers with all the zeroes but their elected bosses are more concerned with getting re-elected, that’s when you get a county of 100,000 paying hundreds of millions in taxes.

But before we all start dumping tea in the harbor and commence to generating recall petitions, let’s do a little inward soul searching first. How many of us who cry for budget cuts, budget cuts and more budget cuts have threatened the politicians in our ward or district when they’ve started making noise about rethinking a road-paving project in our neighborhood or cutting back on a service that benefits us directly or eliminating a program that impacts our business’ bottom line?

How many of us, knowingly or otherwise, have invoked the old NIMBY cry — Not in my backyard! — when some misguided government lackey starts sniffing around our honeypot when there are plenty of less significant such containers they could be focusing their attention on in other, less vital parts of the community?

I’m lousy at math when the numbers get higher than 47, and I’ll admit to knowing less about the budgeting process than even those self-proclaimed know-it-alls who couldn’t differentiate between inflation and insemination if their futures depended on it. But if put in a do-or-die situation, I bet you I could cut spending out of the school, city, county and even WG&L budgets without it having too great an impact.

Unfortunately, I’m certain the second I did, some politician trolling for votes, some special-interest group looking for a free ride or some yahoo not quite willing to take a personal hit for the team would start crying foul. Maybe if a few politicians would grow a backbone, we put an end to really non-essential largesse and we ignored greedy individuals whose only concern is No. 1, then we’d start to see a little taxpayer relief.

Make it about you all you want, but it’s those taxpayers who are the geese that have been laying all these golden eggs around here. And, lest we forget, they have the capacity to rebuild their nests pretty much anywhere they want.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.