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May 25, 2019

4/18/2019 7:30:00 AM
Our view
Once again, Mott not on the mark

Well, the Petco fiasco is behind us, and we have a lot more to say about that topic another time, but what caught our eye in Tuesday's county board debate were remarks by supervisor Bob Mott, when he talked about why the county needed to keep the Petco study committee going.

It was about "revenue streams," Mott said: "In the back of my mind, I'm always looking for a revenue stream for the county," he said. "... If we don't look at it - and it's not going to cost us anything to look at it because we won't be spending any money to start with - then I think you are doing a disservice to taxpayers because you are not looking at possible revenue."

The revenue stream Mr. Mott was talking about would be possible if the county became a landlord and reaped rent windfalls from the private sector. At least theoretically. In reality, which might as well be another planet when it comes to government officials, that scheme had boondoggle written all over it.

With all due respect to Mr. Mott, we think he has the wrong pair of policy glasses on. He should not be "always looking for a revenue stream for the county," as he put it. What he should be looking at is government spending and how to cut it.

To be sure, sometimes government needs a new or augmented revenue stream, but it should always be to pay for core government functions only, and even then it should be considered as a last resort, not as the first thought on a government official's mind.

The point is, revenues are a function of spending. You don't need revenue if you aren't spending, or, to say it another way, cut spending and you will need less revenue. That's the best revenue of all, the one that is small.

But when you start thinking about revenue streams and how to grow them all the time, it's just an invitation to spend more. And tax more. And do things governments shouldn't do, like lease buildings and try to run other private sector operations, which they generally run right into the ground.

Not that Mr. Mott is alone in this type of thinking. It infects a lot of souls on the Oneida County board.

That's exactly why the county has something called a Funding Opportunities Committee to try to find ways to pay employees a million bucks a year more, more or less. That sounds an awful lot like finding new revenue streams to us.

To be fair, the committee has promised to look at cutting programs and positions, but, given the name of the committee, we doubt this is going to be the highest priority in the end.

We're not sure the county needs to pay its employees more because we're not sure the county has stacked up what its employees make against private sector compensation in Oneida County, and against the county's cost of living, which are the comparisons they need to make.

But for the sake of argument, let's say the county does need to pay employees more. In that case, they should scour every program to see if it can be cut or reduced, and they should make the appropriate position cuts.

Paying for employee raises by reducing the amount of employees is the very first and only revenue stream the county should consider. And only if that amount doesn't pay for it all should the county turn to other revenue streams.

The name "funding opportunities"­ most certainly gets visions of wheel taxes and higher fees and government-run businesses dancing in the heads of government officials. How about clarifying the mission and calling the committee the "bureaucracy reduction" committee?

We like the ring of that.

Now Mr. Mott thinks like a liberal Democrat, which is to always have government do more and more, to build bigger and shinier buildings, and to suck ever more money out of the private sector, sapping it of its investment strength.

But we don't want to give the impression that Republicans are blameless. They are not. They often make the very same mistake. If Democrats can be called the tax-and-spend party, the Republicans can be fairly called the borrow-and-spend party.

Republicans like to cut taxes, but they rarely cut the same amount of spending to go along with those tax cuts. That creates a huge deficit that has to be paid for by borrowing, which saps future generations of their economic strength.

If they would focus on cutting spending first, the tax cuts would take care of themselves without the collateral fiscal damage. After all, you only need taxes to pay for spending, and so the lower spending, the lower the taxes.

Here's how the incomparable Milton Friedman put it: "Keep your eye on one thing and one thing only: how much government is spending, because that's the true tax ... If you're not paying for it in the form of explicit taxes, you're paying for it indirectly in the form of inflation or in the form of borrowing. The thing you should keep your eye on is what government spends, and the real problem is to hold down government spending as a fraction of our income, and if you do that, you can stop worrying about the debt."

And, we might add, you can stop worrying about where you can find all those revenue streams, which leads to the birth of crazy ideas.

In Mr. Friedman's formulation, by the way, explicit taxes equals Democrats; borrowing equals Republicans. That's pretty much the difference.

In Oneida County, we have had officials talking incessantly about new revenue streams and spending more money on public employees, as well as buying big buildings or building new ones. They do this while rarely talking about the county's true needs with the same passion: a crisis of jobs and poverty, an opioid crisis, an affordable housing crunch, rising out-of-home placements, and more afflicting our vulnerable populations.

That they should even mention, much less spend so much time debating, the possibility of a new or relocated highway department and higher wages for already well-paid public employees amid such disproportionate misery and economic insecurity should make them ashamed.

Yes, we all want the Petco facility to prosper. We all want jobs to return there. But the very last way to ensure that is to turn it over to a dysfunctional county government. The best way they can help is by getting out of the way, which is what happened Tuesday, thanks to some lucid thinking on the county board floor.

Now they should right their own ship. They should start slashing spending on unnecessary programs and positions and, rather than funnel the savings to other employees, funnel it into economic opportunity and infrastructure and needed services for the most vulnerable among us.

If they take Mr. Friedman's advice, if they keep their eye on the spending, it will be a win for taxpayers, and a win for a more prosperous and cared-for citizenry.

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