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Some cutting remarks about budgeting

Back when conservatives were more than a pack of Bible-thumpin’, gun-totin’, anti-immigrant, anti-abortionists — and brains weren’t held in the same regard as tonsils and appendixes — bright folks like a guy named Roy Ash had an interesting idea on how to prevent bureaucracy from taking over the world.

Roy was your basic pencil-necked geek. He started out as bill collector, learned finance and aviation as an Army Air Corps bean-counter, went on to work for reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, and ended up helping found a company that made most of the spacesuits for America’s race to the moon.

From there he tackled an even bigger challenge — overseeing the federal budget for two conservative Republican administrations. His work, oddly enough, helped lead to creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency that may have strayed from its original mission but was impressive at its start.

Even more impressive was how Roy’s number-crunching convinced even skeptical conservatives that government wasn’t doing an effective enough job protecting and conserving natural resources. That was much more than just one small step for budget-kind.

Still, it wasn’t his greatest legacy. He had this strange idea that, instead of just starting with what you currently spend and adding to it or subtracting from it each year, everything — and we mean everything — about government had to be re-examined every year to determine whether it was doing what it was supposed to do, as efficiently as it could.

It was a long and arduous process, the cost of which wasn’t inconsequential. But in the end it meant taxpayer money was respected. We got what we paid for and were assured of getting the biggest bang for our buck to boot.

Whether his ideas about continually re-examining government were too costly or were deemed too dangerous to the cushy lives of bureaucrats, we’ll never know. For whatever reason, his system, called zero-based budgeting, became a museum piece, alongside the spacesuits his company designed.

It’s a shame. Hours of budget deliberations make it clear Marion County could benefit from lifting a few of Roy’s concepts off the inappropriately named ash heap.

According to the county’s hired-gun accountant, 63% of everything the county spends goes to salaries and benefits — the one thing absolutely no one has questioned about county spending, other than to claim they need to be increased.

Instead of spending $18,000 on a still-ignored study as to whether county employees get paid enough, what the county should have studied is whether employees do enough and do it as efficiently as possible.

It’s not just the county that needs to study whether its work force is bloated with under-qualified or inefficient workers. Yes, times have changed. Demands of state and federal governments have made local government jobs more difficult. But that’s true in the private sector, as well. You don’t see private businesses doubling their bookkeeping staffs to keep up with IRS paperwork requirements the way you see local governments doing.

If we want real change — better infrastructure and better economic opportunity for everyone — we have to focus not just on what stuff government buys but also what human resources it employs and make sure someone is monitoring them at least as closely as wind farm road repair crews are being monitored.

We can’t make meaningful changes in how government spends our money if we immediately lock up the bulk of that spending and never look at it because, to do so, would attract to commission and council meeting rooms as many concerned employees as a wind farm or cell tower discussion would attract protesters.

When we want to give big raises to attorneys, hire outside bailiffs instead of deputies, pay big sums to people running ballpark concession stands, make recycling a costly religion, and ignore automation by picking up trash more often and with more people than needed, keep in mind that each of those actions has an equal and opposite reaction in reducing what can be done to improve infrastructure.

Regular reader William Payer — his friends call him Bill — wonders how commissioners can kept a straight face while talking about tough financial straits on the same day that they gave raises to four workers, hired another worker part-time, and transformed one part-time position (along with a second unfilled one) into a full-time position.

Just like a rising tide raises all boats, each additional drop of rain makes it that much harder to drain the swamp.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified June 26, 2019

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