Governments Should Act Like They Are in a Fiscal Crisis All the Time
There is an excellent story in today’s Post-Dispatch about how various local governments are reacting to the nation’s ongoing fiscal difficulties. This post’s title is a little bit of an exaggeration, but the point stands. Why don’t governments always act like tightwad protectors of the people’s money? Why does it take a fiscal crisis for the below to occur? (Emphasis added:)
In Jefferson County, a hiring freeze is in place. Presiding Commissioner Chuck Banks said the county also is limiting the personal use of county vehicles, has delayed nonemergency maintenance of county buildings and is banning the idling of county vehicles at work sites.
Now, the middle part is the most troubling issue in these difficult times. Deferred maintenance can have serious repercussions. That is why I admit my post title is an exaggeration. Money spent on maintenance of facilities on a proper schedule is good use of taxpayer funds. It is easy to defer maintenance at times such as this, and it’s sometimes necessary, but eventually the money is going to have to be spent to keep facilities up to basic standards. It may cost more the longer you wait to do it, and you have to hope the roof does not cave in at your rec center because you waited two years behind schedule to repair it.
But other than that, the larger question stands. If positions do not need to be filled during difficult economic times, did they ever really need to be filled in the first place? If county departments can cut 8 percent of the budget now, why couldn’t they do that last year?
There are several answers to this, none of them fun to admit. In some places, putting as many people on the public payroll as possible is exactly the goal in the first place. And in just about every government, at every level, the incentives for the average employee to save money just do not exist. It is so much easier just to come in, do your job, and leave at 5:00.
Steven Levitt, at his recent speaking event at SLU, told the story of an IRS worker who came up with the idea to require Social Security numbers on tax forms. When it was finally implemented after years of trying, millions of children disappeared overnight on April 15, 1987. This one employee increased government revenues by hundreds of millions of dollars while reducing tax fraud, and yet it took years for him to get a lousy $25,000 bonus. It was a funny story, but also a pathetic one. If someone who achieved this much in government service had so much difficulty being properly rewarded, what incentives do average local bureaucrats have?