What can we do and how shall we do it?

Feb 10, 2010

The continuing economic contraction resonates through Chesterfield County government like tremors after a major quake.  Unlike the feds, we can’t print money or charge it to the kids; we have to face the fact that there aren’t enough dollars to pay for everything we want.  Over the years, we’ve become addicted to state subsidies, federal subsidies and ever-increasing revenues from bubbles inflated by the central planners.  During the bubbles, instead of saving to make it through the lean years, we adopted the Washington model of trying to be all things to all people.  As the reality of economic stagnation combines with the realization that this may be the new normal, our local politicians are constrained by fiscal necessity and cuts in services loom large on the horizon.

The School Board’s recently announced projections of what it has to do to make it through another year shows that reality is sinking in.  Usually when there are projected budget shortfalls, politicians always cut essential services – the policeman, the fireman, the teacher, the librarian.  Cut things people will immediately miss and want so they’ll stand still for tax increases to continue the spending.  We’ve just got to close the playground, but we never have to use our fully-staffed planning department instead of hiring expensive, out-of-town consultants.  

Several years ago, we elected some new faces to the Board of Supervisors and these well-meaning civic-minded people walked in just as the bubble began to burst.  Instead of a baton, they were handed a bag of future promises and little cash.  Once the campaign turns into the job and you actually see what the public doesn’t, the smoke and mirrors become apparent.  As long as the fires keep burning and more smoke is available, that works, but as the blaze of sub-prime hocus-pocus cooled, our new leaders had to face the music.  When the music stops, there are always fewer chairs and no one wants to end up standing alone.

The tried and true method of putting six gallons of government paint in a five gallon can … grow the can.  Our county government is the largest employer in the county and the largest source for services.  People now expect government growth to meet their wants, constantly expanding to satisfy their desires.  And politicians have made careers out of appearing to fulfill those twin goals for at least a plurality of voters, if not a majority of citizens.  But the easy days of an expanding group of developers paying increasing proffers and a tax base built on inflating property values has been shown to be the mirage it always was.  Here comes the heavy lifting.  What we need now is creative thinking.  Now is the time to return to the time-honored principles of freedom, opportunity and thrift that made us great to begin with.

It’s easy to point fingers at problems and much harder to hand craft solutions.  What can we do and how shall we do it?  Right now, there are scores of special interest and advocacy groups trying to catch the ear of the supervisors, all pleading, “Don’t take money from my pet program; take it from someone else’s.”  I imagine our elected leaders who are working for part-time money trying to manage a $1-billion-a-year concern must feel besieged and between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  What to do?  Who to disappoint?  Every choice to spare one only coming at the expense of another with nothing but lose-lose decisions in every direction.  First of all, we need to appreciate their willingness to serve.  For most of them, this is the culmination of a long process of community involvement and, after being there for a while, it may not be exactly what they thought it would be and don’t be surprised if some choose not to run for re-election.  They have a tough job and it’s going to get a lot tougher.

The School Board has made a brave move cutting at all levels, including administration and across the board.  Perhaps we should follow its example.  Instead of everyone pleading for their own cause, perhaps we should stand together and advocate for changing the way we govern and the way we live.  Cuts have got to come; we have to move to a smaller budget because there’s less money.  Wouldn’t an X percent cut in the county budget evenly applied across the board substantially meet the goal?  Spread the pain and equalize the burden.  Could the libraries use volunteers to fill the gaps in manpower, the police use auxiliaries; volunteer fire departments and rescue squads once met the need and still serve us well; can’t the churches step up to meet some more needs, maybe coordinate, work together and serve some meals on a regular basis?  Why not lower taxes and fees to attract business and provide jobs?  Either we’re all in this together or it’s everyman for himself.  If we all demand what we want, will any of us get what we need?

Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College and History for the American Public University System.  http://drrobertowens.comn © 2010 Robert R. Owens.

dr.owens@comcast.net | 751-0421

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