Who Turns Down the Thermostat?
It’s the Person Who Pays the Bill
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
To pay bills, we work. That’s a simple truth. It takes hours, sweat, and strain, and so when it comes time to pay those bills, or to pay for anything, we measure the balance due against the sacri-fice personally required—the pain that’s involved. In keeping with this, many of us turn down the thermostat at night, or when we leave the house, so that we do not waste a single dollar. Teenagers and renters though, those who don’t pay the bill, do not turn down the thermostat, and neither does anybody else who does not pay the bill (in the same way that insured healthcare patients disregard medical costs). An exception to this rule might arise on a rare occasion, but that exception, as the saying goes, proves the rule, because such occurrences are so rare.
The point is, when it’s not your money footing the bill, you don’t worry so much about the cost, unless your are an exceptional person.
If this happens not to be the case on local city and county commissions, in the Montana state legislature, or in the United States Congress, we would like to hear about recent examples. Perhaps certain legislators or commissioners push for spending cuts, but are thwarted (email us and we will publish your letters). But as it stands historically, the spending authorized and sought after by such entities does nothing but grow year after year without decreasing, without those in office turning down the thermostat, because it isn’t their money. With the new legislature, perhaps that will change, though we’ve heard nothing about inflated property taxes being reduced.
A person could properly argue that a city like Bozeman has grown over the years and that services must therefore increase, though that does not mean spending is always necessary, competitive, or within the proper role of government (tennis anyone?). Consideration of the taxpayer must still be demanded, for those elected to office commonly see the foremost item of their job description as inventing new ways to spend our money, rather than going over their budgets with fine toothed combs and an eye toward economiz-ing, toward downsizing whenever reasonably possible, as if last year’s budget were an inviolate baseline upon which to build.
The City of Bozeman’s public employee cell phone embarrassment of 2010 comes to mind, and that it was not an anomaly is a good bet. Why did the city have to be shamed into taking action as a result of newspaper articles? And why did so many public employees need expen-sive smart phones costing tens of thousands of dollars monthly paid for by hard working taxpayers? And didn’t that flap in the press reveal, rather than the matter having been an exception, that we should ask how many other such expenditures are ongoing but fail to show up on the taxpayer’s radar?
That incident, we contend, represents not the exception, but the rule, that a disre-gard for taxpayers applies to public spending as a matter of course. It is rare for public officials, for example, to price used vehicles, machinery, or equipment, or to shop the way we (or they) shop at home, or, for that matter, to raise funds for pet projects by looking for private monies. And now Bozeman has set it sights on a mind boggling Climate Action Plan, with only one commissioner, Mayor Jeff Krauss, voting against it in consid-eration of the open ended cost.
Other troubling non necessities come to mind. I heard Livingston City Commissioners once speaking proudly about things they had gotten done, projects they had deter-mined needed to be foist upon residents. One of the types of projects (planned but defeated by public protest) was a display of surrealistic art meant to stand upon a historic bridge. When city officials have their minds on such things, rest assured they are not thinking about the sacrifice of taxpayers. Not when, as we learned recently, no proposals since the last election to cut or eliminate spending have been presented by the City Manager or voted on by the city commission. None.
We wonder also if the City of Livingston is interested in genera-ting revenues by means other than taxes, fees, and assessments, the way for example the Livingston Youth Soccer Association has raised money—through private donors.
Regarding concerts, Summerfest in particular, and the prospect of increasing revenues by booking big name acts, I was told by an official, and I quote, “We don’t want another Sheryl Crow” —her 2002 concert in Sacajawea Park having been an extraordinarily positive event and a potential model for future profitable events. We commend Summerfest as an achievement, and here’s a positive suggestion—why not make a whole bunch of money on it instead of raising fees on water and garbage? Just a thought.
For those who doubt taxpayer funding leads to excessive spending, consider this fact: Government funded K thru 12 schools in Montana cost $10,000 per student per year (a huge and ever growing cost garnered from income and property taxes), yet for independent schools, which are often better performers, and where people turn down the thermostat at night, that cost is cut in half to only $5,000 per student.
An informal survey conducted monthly by this publication since 1988 reveals why all of this is so important. We are in constant contact with business owners. Some have folded. Many have laid off employ-ees. Some put off paying bills until they are long overdue. Most prefer hope and optimism, but when looking at empty storefronts that’s not so easy. I see the look in their eyes, a look those on secure public payrolls often do not comprehend.
Note: As we go to press, Rep. John Esp, (R) HD 61, of the House Appropriations Committee, reports that the state legislature under its new leadership, despite howls of protest, will appropriate less money during the current session than appropriated in the last biennium, an actual reduction in spending. In the United States Congress, Paul Ryan, R-Wis, has put forward a dramatic budget cutting proposal that addresses entitlement reform and promises to reduce the deficit and debt by over $6 trillion in the next ten years.