Grey Matters: Expense Account

Seattle is trying to build pricey new roads while it struggles to fill potholes in the existing ones

A weird contradiction of our times is that we the public are pulled toward two opposite extremes. Specifically, we are exhorted to take on ginormous new public projects while cutting back on almost everything the government does that is actually useful, albeit unglamorous.

The downtown Seattle deep-bore tunnel, the expansion of the 520 bridge over Lake Washington, and the extension of light rail to Ballard and West Seattle are all in the works or being pushed by powerful politicians, yet the daily basics of government are being slashed, such as library hours, park operations and road maintenance. We’re told by policymakers and editorialists that it’s good to build multibillion-dollar highways, and more are on the drawing board. Meanwhile, we can’t fill potholes in the existing streets.

It’s a little like drawing up a family budget that cuts out food and utilities so we can buy a new Porsche. Or two. Or three. It’s a scheme to commute in luxury while our home is declining into a fixer-upper.
Arguments that the spending comes from different pots of money (capital projects vs. operating expenses) don’t really make common sense, even if they do make government sense. From a taxpayer’s perspective, money is money.

With big deficits looming at the state, county and city levels, and tax revenues way down because of a longer-than-expected recession, public employees are being furloughed, which means being forced to take unpaid days off. If you haven’t called a state or city office yet and gotten a “Sorry, today’s a furlough day” message, you’re not trying very hard.

Those assigned the job of trimming public expenses are telling us that doing things halfway is the future, and that maybe it’s even good for us.

For example, Metro transit is cutting back on bus stops. Metro says people can walk farther to their stops, and it promises the cutbacks will speed up buses and keep them on time. So, a hardship for elderly and disabled riders is good news for the rest of us, especially the impatient among us. Maybe Metro isn’t going far enough. If it eliminated all the stops, think of the efficiencies!

Seattle Public Utilities is proposing a “pilot program” for 2011 to cut garbage pickups from weekly to biweekly. It will still come for your food scraps and yard waste every week, but everything else will have to wait. Citywide, it is going to save millions of dollars, they say, and reduce landfill. That’s good, but it also means your trash is going to hang around as long as an earworm by ABBA.

Naturally, government being what it is, all these cuts (and more) will result in annoyance, limited savings and, yes, likely tax increases. Not increases targeted for basic services or sensible maintenance, but for massive new spending, such as $57 million to make over Mercer Street, or hundreds of millions to expand the freeway through Montlake.

Seattle hates antitax-initiative activist Tim Eyman, yet it often finds ways to strengthen his emotional appeal. Cutting government is fine, even raising taxes is fine if you can keep a sense of proportion and fairness (tough to do in a recession). But what Seattleites are experiencing is a cutback of necessities—police officers, for example—while we’re maxing out our public credit card on stuff we don’t need. Worse, a lot of the credit card payments come from regressive taxes (such as the sales tax) instead of progressive taxes (like an income tax). In other words, the folks who can least afford it will pay the most.
Perhaps there’s method in the madness.

To help pay for expensive local transportation proj

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