Stop the Presses: Choices and priorities

 

By Mike Kroll

 

Elected and appointed public officials have many duties but among their most important is the responsible expenditure of tax dollars. No one likes to pay taxes and most like to complain about the taxes they do pay but there's no denying that tax dollars are the life blood of government. As taxpayers and citizens we need our civic leaders to recognize what infrastructure and services are needed and to partial out the limited available tax dollars by making prioritized choices. Just as we cannot afford to fund everything we might like done by government there are many items we simply cannot afford not to fund.

We elect our leaders to make these tough choices and set the priorities. Such hard choices will often be unpopular and this is especially true when the occasional necessity of raising taxes or fees occurs. In a republic such as ours we elect leaders to make these hard choices and if we're not happy with the choices they make we are free to vote for their opponent in the next election cycle. What our leaders must not do is believe that they are “representing their constituents” when a controversial choice must be made by allowing those who make the most noise determine their vote. Members of the community have the right and indeed duty to make their feelings known to our officials but the decision must be made on the merits of the issue not merely on perceived popularity.

Two weeks ago the Galesburg City Council voted down two new taxes proposed by City Manager Gary Goddard. Admittedly, Goddard exhibited poor political skills in the handling of each tax but his rationale that the city needs additional tax income was correct. The loud voices who objected to any tax increase “during this period of time” were not speaking as rational informed citizens but rather were emotional and self-centered.

Sure, Goddard should have specified exactly how he thought the added tax money should be spent. He should also have clued the City Council members into his plan more than a day or so before the agenda with the twin bombshells hit the city website. The argument that Goddard  should have entered into constructive dialog with the restaurateurs and alcohol merchants in Galesburg before putting the food and alcohol tax before the City Council is amusing but irrelevant. There is no way he was going to win support from this group for this tax regardless of the amount of prior discussion.

The simple facts are (a) the City needs additional revenue, (b) general sales taxes are the most regressive tax you can impose (the state is almost certain to raise or expand sales taxes after the November election regardless of the gubernatorial victor because the state needs additional revenue as well), (c) property taxes have been so demonized as to render any discussion of significantly increasing the levy moot, and (d) Goddard's point that taxing prepared food and alcohol is both fairer and less painful for the average tax payer is right on the money.

The telecommunications tax is a different matter. While it raises more revenue it is a very regressive tax that disproportionately hits poor families. Additionally, the existing telecommunication tax is already a substantially larger relative proportion of the average telephone subscriber's bill that would grow to huge proportions if it were tripled from its current two percent to six percent.

There are many pressing needs in the City of Galesburg today that are not adequately funded. A large portion of these are related to infrastructure like our streets, sidewalks, storm sewers and parks. Perhaps nothing demonstrates how badly the City has underfunded maintenance of our infrastructure as the “crown jewel,” our prized water system that is literally crumbling from decades of neglect and artificially low water rates, particularly for large water users. And then we have highly anticipated but optional infrastructure projects the the three railroad crossings we want to replace with bridges or underpasses.

Funding a government is not easy. The competition for tax dollars is great and the demands of government even greater. This competition doesn't lessen as you climb to the State or Federal government level, it grows far more intense as the magnitude of the dollars involved increase geometrically. There can be little doubt that our City leaders will be looking to both the State and Federal governments for help with many of the infrastructure needs and especially with the pipeline and bridges. And, we must also understand that State and Federal politicians likewise must make choices and prioritize the funds they dole out to help cities such as ours.

That is why we should consider long and hard how much pressure we want to place on State Representative Don Moffitt, Senators Barack Obama and Dick Durbin, and Governor Rod Blagojevich  to assist in funding local projects like the National Railroad Hall of Fame. If you accept that there is a cap to just how much State and Federal money will be sent our way in the next few years wouldn't you rather it go toward essential infrastructure like the water system or bridges over the tracks than for a nice but clearly non-essential project like the Hall of Fame?

As citizens we need to be prepared to pay our fair share of taxes and fees to ensure the quality of life and services in Galesburg. We should argue strenuously against wasteful spending or the false savings that are obtained by neglecting necessary maintenance of infrastructure. The City Manager and the City Council will be making those hard choices in the coming months and we need to hope they will have their spending priorities in the right places. Blindly arguing against any increases in taxes or fees is not only disingenuous and selfish – it also happens to be counterproductive to your own pocketbook to boot.