Digging Out

NOTE: The following represents the analysis-based opinion of the author and do not reflect those of his employer or any other affiliations.

By Kenneth Hunter, Guest Blogger

Four years ago last month, my wife and I relocated from Northern Virginia to Eastern North Carolina. As the helpers we hired to assist with unpacking started unloading the truck and taking out our belongings, one inquired about a particular possession.

When I stated that that is was a snow shovel, the man positively replied, “You’re not going to need that down here.”

Every winter since, we’ve seen snow collect on our driveway and sidewalks.  Every winter since, that snow shovel has proven to be a valuable asset.

Self-preparedness sometimes involves holding onto resources and lessons that are often ignored or discouraged when facing different environments. Encountering a new situation, experienced incumbents might downplay the applicability of an idea or action learned from a different job or situation because, in the context of their stature, the present surroundings or institution are entirely different.

Just as human nature has a tendency to believe that every location or societal environment is different, it encourages us to ignore what has worked in the past in search of a “new idea” that has not proven success, or awareness of potential (negative) externalities.

The same could be said of the current fiscal crisis facing municipal and state governments, especially how politicians and bureaucrats focused on the “new” rather than the “known” exacerbated conditions that recently enabled a total collapse of a basic government function.

In the case of New York City, the common sense public service duty of snow removal was (quite frankly) FUBAR’d as a result of a series of events, facilitated and executed by elected and appointed government leaders. Common dilemas such as poor financial planning, labor unrest and misperceptions regarding boundaries of government response and individual citizen responsibility all play noticeable roles.

Last summer, I read about the immense pride NYC had in their new, multi-million dollar playground projects. While I am not an expert on how City revenues are raised and specific designations, it seems to me that these projects represented a critical lack of focus by City leaders, elected and otherwise, on the “dirty” and “less alluring” elements of local government.  Cool playgrounds are great, but they can’t save a life when an ambulance can’t make it down a street because it’s covered in 2 feet of frozen snow.

The easiest culprit to pin down in NYC snow removal fiasco, though not specific, is a lack of prioritization. This is an obvious and ominous legacy of decades of relative spending freedom enjoyed by governments, politicians, administrators and citizens at all levels across the country. Our newly-arrived climate of austerity, necessitated by significant, unfunded, current and future obligations, forces us to take stock of the public services and operations that matter “most.”

Initially, it looks like too many leaders are not prepared to part with their dream projects and simply focus on making sure that the “dirty work” gets done. Of course, I doubt many of them have much personal experience with a snow shovel.

ASPA Member Kenneth Hunter is an MPA graduate of The University of Georgia with more than a decade of experience in local government finance. Kenneth is the Budget & Evaluation Manager for the City of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and serves on the Executive Committee of the Association for Budgeting & Financial Management and is a Board Member and Webmaster for the North Carolina Local Government Budget Association. You can follow Ken online via Facebook & Tumblr.

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