Making Money Should Never Be Government’s First Priority

About two years ago the video you see below was captured at one of our Board of Commissioners meetings. In the clip, Commissioner Grant Cheek says, “The town’s in the business of making money, so we need all we can get.”

That statement has bothered me since the first time I heard it, and reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of local government in our lives. Yes, we need all the money we can get, but it is not the business of a municipal government to focus on making money.

Unfortunately, many people today are under the mistaken impression that government should operate like a business. While there are similarities between public (government) enterprises and the private sector, there is one big difference: government exists to provide services that most of us couldn’t afford to pay for individually, not to make money.

I’m not advocating for regular, long-term deficit spending, but you’ll find no mention of the profit motive in any reputable textbook about how local government works.

Services local government is often called upon to provide include the treatment and distribution of clean drinking water, collection and treatment of sewage and solid waste, police and fire protection, maintenance of libraries, parks and other recreational facilities, or planning and zoning services, to name only a handful of the things we rely on our municipal government to provide in Ramseur.

Government is not, and should never be expected to turn a profit in supplying services we all need and rely upon. If from time to time one service line does generate a financial surplus, that’s great. Turning a profit should be seen as the exception it is, rather than a goal all departments must strive for. In many cases it is not possible to break even, much less turn a profit.

Can you imagine how high our taxes would be if the police and fire departments were expected to earn a profit? Or how high the fees would be for people to rent shelters, kayak, or go fishing at Ramseur Lake, or play ball at Leonard Park? Few of us would be able to afford those protections and activities.

I spent many years marking utility lines in Davidson County, and had almost daily opportunities to speak with workers and supervisors at Davidson Water, Inc.. I will never forget the day one of those supervisors told me about the complaints he regularly heard from customers about what they thought were high water bills. He said, “If those people had any idea how much money [Davidson Water] got in state and federal grants, they’d never complain about a high water bill again.”

In short, without those outside funding sources, water bills would be much higher for their customers. Davidson Water is a non-profit corporation, but the same principles apply: they provide a service, delivering clean water to the citizens of Davidson County and parts of Randolph County as well.

Obviously the managers of Davidson Water, or any non-profit or government service agency, want to find ways to operate at a surplus as often as possible, but making a profit is not the primary objective.

I hope that all of our elected officials in Ramseur, and the candidates hoping to replace them this November, will think about this as they formulate their agendas and goals for the next administrative term. Government is not in the business of making money. It exists solely to provide services we all need, but often cannot afford to purchase individually.

If our current tax base can’t support our needs we have two main options: cut services or raise taxes. I don’t like either of those ideas. There are many grant opportunities available that we have not been applying for in recent years. I believe part of the reason for that is two-fold. Our part-time governing board has relied too much on itself to manage the services we rely on, and has collectively refused to seek and retain professional help when needed.

Currently the Board of Commissioners is seeking a replacement for former town clerk, Bobbie Hatley. I hope by now the members of the board have seen the error they made in asking Ms. Hatley to wear so many hats (clerk, finance officer, zoning administrator). I encourage my neighbors to join me in asking the board to seek a well qualified permanent finance officer and a competent clerk to share those responsibilities. I believe their goal should be to hire two full-time individuals for these positions, and eliminate the water billing clerk’s position entirely.

I would further suggest that the board adopt a long term goal of finding an administrator well versed in finding and writing applications for grant opportunities across all service departments. That person could even be a part-time contractor, working with the town in a manner similar to Jill Wood’s position as a consultant to the planning and zoning board.

Ramseur could be a fantastic place to live and raise a family again, but we can’t get there doing the same things that have failed us in recent years.

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