The Greenville Guardian Actual journalism, virtually delivered

Question Austerity

Though some might hate to admit it, there are certain things government does best.

Tonight city council will take up the future of Bradford Creek Golf Course, a city-owned and -operated facility that some have cited as an expense Greenville cannot afford.

Apparently taking their cue from the national (indeed, international) trend that has seen governments slash public programs in the name of “containing public debt,” some are recklessly sounding similar alarms here in Greenville, looking for any reason they can find to cut city spending.

But they are missing – or choosing to ignore – a couple of critical facts.

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IN OUR OPINION

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First: Greenville, financially, is in the pink.

Thanks to years of excellent management, and despite a horrific national economy, Greenville’s smart stewardship of public dollars and city resources has allowed it to provide great programs and services to all its residents – at rates that help keep people active and involved even when times are tough.

Such activity – whether it’s golf at Bradford Creek, arts and crafts or roller hockey at Jaycee Park, Little League at Elm Street Park, swimming at the aquatics and fitness center, fishing at River Park North, skateboarding and BMX at Extreme Park, hiking, biking, soccer, tennis – or even service on a city board or commission – is an important factor in getting through tough times. Without the release such recreational, cultural and civic engagement offers – without, in short, community itself – people quickly become detached, and such detachment can lead to hopelessness.

To be clear, city council is not, to our knowledge, considering cuts to the other programs or facilities listed and linked above. Yet.

But if cuts, the privatization of operations, or even the sale of Bradford Creek go through – all of which are on the table at tonight’s city council meeting – there’s simply no telling what’s next.

Who Knows Best?
The fact is, the professionals who administer Greenville’s smooth-running, surplus-producing government are under attack by a city council whose clueless yet activist majority seems to think it knows what it’s doing – despite ample evidence to the contrary. It was hoped this cadre of micromanagers learned its lesson after the near-simultaneous resignations of the city’s police chief, city manager, and public works director earlier this year.

Apparently, however, it has not.

Which brings us to the second fact that this activist faction – and indeed many others who think themselves politically astute – choose, in the name of political ideology, to ignore: When it comes to ensuring the financial health of a municipality (or a state, or a nation), austerity and the privatization of public resources does not work.

As former city manager Wayne Bowers so eloquently put it in his recent “Exit Interview” with The Guardian: “[W]e always talk about making government run like a business. And you can’t. It’s two different things. If this could be run like a business, it’d be a business. We’re not a business.”

Looking objectively at the realities, it’s hard not to laugh when elected officials at any level invoke “austerity” and “privatization” as the solutions to every budget problem, and in the next breath (of course) warn that the continuance – let alone expansion – of publicly funded services will create “Big government!” and “High taxes!”

Gasp!

We therefore think it’s pretty telling that many citizens who consider themselves “anti-tax” and “anti-big government” are among the strongest opponents to proposed cuts in public programs which serve their interests.

Bradford Creek is a perfect local example of this.

Golf is known as “the game of a lifetime” because it can be played by almost anyone at any stage of life or health status. Many, many senior citizens – at least some of whom would doubtless say they hate big government and fear higher taxes – oppose the proposed privatization, and certainly the sale, of Bradford Creek, because its greens fees are among the most affordable in Eastern North Carolina.

Indeed, municipal courses present similar opportunities in evolved communities across the nation, making golf affordable not just to seniors on fixed incomes, but to people of all ages and socioeconomic circumstances.

Bradford Creek has been a regional host of junior and college competition. It also offers regular competitive opportunities for Greenville residents. It has the best practice facilities in the area hands down, and the region’s only lighted driving range. For kids in particular, isn’t that far better on a summer evening than some dimly lit street corner?

Of course, those promoting the privatization of Bradford Creek will counter that they are not seeking to shut it down. But can they seriously expect costs – to the city or its patrons – to drop when a for-profit company is running it? One needs only to have completed Economics 101 to understand that corporate enterprises exist to make money. How dedicated would a for-profit outfit be when it comes to fostering participation to all area residents?

There are some things government does best. At the local level, extending recreational opportunities to residents is one of them.

The Ferry Fight
Beyond Bradford Creek, one needs look no further than the Pamlico River for another example of a government program even Tea Party members can embrace: Free ferry service.

One of the joys – and challenges – of living in this beautiful region is navigating our vehicles across waterways. At both Bayview on the Pamlico River, and farther south, at Minnesott Beach on the Neuse, the North Carolina Ferry System provides regular crossings at no charge.

Many runs carry tourists or recreation enthusiasts, but they also serve people working at two major employers: Potash Corp. in Aurora, and Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in Havelock.

Some in our Statehouse want to see the free rides end. They cite the state’s budget crisis. But across the region – in some of the East’s most conservative districts, popular opposition to what’s being called the “ferry tax” has been loud, long and thus far, successful.

While we believe using the term “ferry tax” needlessly demonizes a word and practice – taxation – that is too often mischaracterized and misunderstood (what exactly do these folks think has funded the ferry service up to now?), we applaud those waging the fight.

It’s another example of something government does well, without the safety concerns that would be in play if some corner-cutting, for-profit enterprise were at the helm.

And Then There’s Medicare
In the context of this discussion, one righteous cry which came at the height of the national debate on health care reform a couple of years ago stands out: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” Fiscal conservatives, Tea Party activists and Libertarians alike screamed it, and scrawled it on signs they carried to town hall meetings.

There’s just one little thing, of course.

Medicare is a government-run program.

This seeming dichotomy is not surprising when a couple of key factors are taken into account.

First, a report issued this year by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that many people living in the most conservative areas of our country receive the highest levels of federal aid, including people who claim never to have received such benefits. It’s not that they’re lying; they just don’t realize that Medicare and other such programs are federally administered.

In other words – not unlike free ferry service – people take the programs for granted.

Here in Pitt County, programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security contribute nearly 21 percent – over one-fifth – of all personal income.

If that sounds high, compare it to the surrounding, more politically conservative counties of Edgecombe (34.4 percent), Martin (32.14), Beaufort (29.22), Lenoir (31.25), Greene (25.67), and Wilson (26.03). Even residents of Craven County (21.08) get slightly more personal income from such federal programs than residents of Pitt. (Full map here.)

The second factor is one on which nearly all polling experts agree: Words matter.

The phrasing of a question has a lot to do with how people answer. When folks understand an issue based on something already known to them, they tend to reject or support it more emphatically, thanks to their experience or impression of the familiar example.

So when pollsters have asked people whether they believe all Americans should be covered by a health care plan “like Medicare” – a program most consider essential and well-run – the answers come back in favor by a margin of 2 to 1.

But ask the same question using phrases that are nebulous, unspecific or politically charged – like “government-run,” “single-payer,” or “socialized” health care – and Americans will say they oppose them. And that’s human nature: We tend to oppose what we don’t fully understand.

Most of All, We Like What Works
What it all boils down to is simple, really.

Whether it’s a municipal golf course, a regional transportation system, or a national health care plan, we Americans want two things: We want it to work, and we want it to cost as little as possible.

When government administers the things it is able to administer well, that’s exactly what we get: Good services at the lowest possible price, because (1) we’re not covering somebody’s profit margin, and (2) we’re all helping pay for it.

We may not all play golf, but Bradford Creek’s shortfall last year was about $86,000, a small fraction of the total Parks and Recreation Department budget, and just over one dollar for each of Greenville’s 80,000-plus residents.

If an extra dollar each in taxes allows not only golf but Little League and hiking and biking and aquatics and fishing and arts and crafts and skateboarding and tennis and civic engagement in Greenville to continue and grow stronger, why would we not pay it?

When we opt to politicize issues rather than consider their true impact on our communities, our regions, and our nation, we do ourselves a disservice. There are some things government does very well, and those things should occupy a far more meaningful realm than the political one.

Its name: Common sense.

One Response

  1. Tom Murtha says:

    Well said!

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