Years ago I was given the opportunity to be part of a public-private partnership. The city of Springfield, in the past, was known for its abundance of street trees along with its spectacular system of public parks, but budget cuts had forced the city to trim its “forestry division” from a few dozen full time employees, including trained arborists, down to fewer than a handful of men. This not only took the division from multiple crews down to one, it limited their work exclusively to emergency response, and even at that there was a backlog which required that a great deal of triage take place.
At its height, the city of Springfield had around 40,000 street trees and was even designated as a “Tree City USA”. The problem is that the city needs to plant roughly 2,000 trees a year just to maintain that canopy. It used to be that most of those trees, hundreds and hundreds of trees per year, were taken from the city’s tree nursery and planted by city crews on city streets.
The idea behind the Friends of Springfield Trees (FrOST) was that an organization made up of trained amateurs could take up the slack. As I had been working with my civic association cleaning up and caring for the neighborhood’s parks and trees, and had taken some classes in order to be able to plant a dozen or so trees I was a natural choice to lead to new organization. My family was moving from the downtown to one of the city’s neighborhoods (not my idea, I assure you!) and my new house was a block from the old tree nursery. I put in dozens of hours getting trained, doing paperwork, having meetings, and locating places to plant trees. Once that was done I applied for cash grants and grants for trees, interviewed homeowners and scouted out planting locations and contacted “Dig Safe” to be sure that trees could be planted safely. Then it was time to get the equipment and volunteers organized to take advantage of the planting window in either Spring or Fall. All of this got somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 trees planted in a year.
To put that “public-private” partnership in perspective, the hundreds of hours I put in managed to get to a point where we got more than 1/30th(!) of the way to a level where the city could hold steady the number of trees on its streets. Of course, if the effort had really succeeded, even with the die-off of half the trees which is normal under urban conditions, we would have been adding a thousand trees a year to the number of trees the city already doesn’t have the manpower to take care of. To reiterate, the city can’t adequately care for the diminishing number of trees it has, so a public-private partnership is created to increase the number of trees. Thank goodness it doesn’t work! The truth is, creating the program is just a smokescreen to allow politicians to get away with not telling people that the city is simply not going to be able to do what it used to do unless it gets the money to do it.
The whole concept is a flaming pile of crap. It all started with the myth that you can cut revenues to cities and it will not have any impact on services. How is that? You can just cut “waste, fraud, and abuse”. Oh, just take the money out of the money that goes to waste fraud and abuse, and the increased efficiency can get you more for less. There is such a thing as a free lunch! The problem is that the evidence shows that the only way to cut waste, fraud, and abuse in government (which exists in government just as it exists in every other form of human endeavor) is to INCREASE OVERSIGHT which actually costs MORE. That is why the list of the world’s least corrupt governments is always topped by high tax nations like Sweden and Denmark, and the list of the most corrupt nations is headed by the lowest of the low tax countries.
At the municipal level this is easily explained. As cuts are made to departmental budgets involving things like trash removal the only way to maintain services at an acceptable level is to cut middle management, oversight. As oversight disappears human frailty is exposed and weak points in the system can be exploited for personal gain. Simply to say that a particular program contains a certain percentage level of “waste, fraud, and abuse”, then to cut the program’s budget by that amount does nothing to eliminate that waste, fraud, and abuse. It would take more in the way of funding to identify exactly where money is being wasted, and then to follow up to ensure that the waste is eliminated, and then to maintain oversight to see to it that it both doesn’t return and isn’t replaced by worse abuse.
Milton Friedman was right. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Giving government less money means that government can do less, and will do it less well. It’s ironic that the people who clamor for consequence free tax cuts are usually avowed Friedmanites.
Speaking ideologically, it is clear to me that people living in theoretically democratic societies have every right to determine what level of government intervention they want in their lives. The beauty of the federal system we have in the United States of America is that the people of Massachusetts can choose to be a higher tax, higher service state, and the people of Louisiana can choose to be a low tax, low service state.
What I find ridiculous and infuriating is the degree to which people believe that there is no connection between the level of taxation and the level of services. The rate of general taxation in our society is low by both historical and international standards AND we spend as much on the military as every other nation on earth combined, where do we think the money is going to come from to pay for the services we want?
The dozens of trained professionals who planted and cared for the city’s street trees for decades and decades were paid salaries that were sufficient to raise families, take vacations, and live a traditional working class lifestyle. Those resources, the resources expropriated from the citizens of Springfield, were substantial. Multiplied by the other services the city supplied at the same, superior level; the constant cleaning of parks and maintenance of pools, the inspection of buildings, the paving of roads…All of these things were paid for by taking money from city residents, money which YES, they could have used to buy another tv, or to take an extra few days of vacation, but which grown ups realize must be spent on keeping up the infrastructure which helps them to live their everyday lives.
Today, people are complaining that their streets aren’t yet plowed 48 hours after the largest single storm snowfall on record. In an interview with a local news reporter the head of the DPW was asked why, why aren’t all the roads yet plowed? In his response he apologetically mentioned 5 straight years of budget cuts…and then quickly apologized for having said it, mumbling that it was “not an excuse”. It may not be an excuse, but it is a reason. When you give fewer people less money to do the same amount, or even more work it isn’t going to get done as swiftly, as efficiently, or as well.
You don’t get what you haven’t paid for, deal with it. Grow up.