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Common Sense Vs. TEA Parties

Posted by Chris Liebenthal on November 2, 2009

I’ll side with common sense every time, thank you very much.

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a very well written and must read column by John Gurda, a Milwaukee historian:

As needs mount and resources decline, what are local governments to do? There are, and always have been, only two real choices: cut services or raise taxes. Cutting is currently in vogue, and it has become a holy crusade for some activists. The most strident among them have decided that the real culprits are public employees, whom they castigate as lazy freeloaders growing fat at the public trough.

I won’t dispute that public-sector fringe benefits, particularly on the county level, seem overly generous for the times, but I’m appalled by the efforts to demean, even to demonize, public employees as a group. These are the people who do our work: teaching our children, patrolling our streets, carrying away our trash, fighting our fires, shelving our books, maintaining our parks. To portray the employees who serve us all as a predatory “them” is a misrepresentation of the grossest sort.

The tragedy of the current crisis is not only that public services are shrinking at the very time residents need them most. Public officials also face decisions straight out of “Sophie’s Choice”: Which child do you sacrifice, and which do you save? Will it be libraries or ladder companies, police or parks, buses or bridges? Sibling departments are forced to compete for scarce resources, and critics feel free to dismiss their appeals as simple self-interest.

I understand that calling for higher taxes is about as popular as inviting skunks to a picnic, but hasn’t the time come to at least consider the possibility? You may be surprised to learn that the City of Milwaukee, despite its overreliance on the property tax, has the lowest total tax bill of 10 peer cities. According to an annual study by Wally Morics, the city comptroller, our local per-capita tax revenues are a third of Cincinnati’s, less than half of Charlotte’s and 70% of Sacramento’s.

Yet the critics confidently claim that Milwaukeeans simply “can’t afford” higher taxes. They may not have read that Chicago recently raised its sales tax rate to 10.25%, well above Milwaukee’s 5.6%. How can our neighbors afford a higher rate when we supposedly can’t? And where do we find the money to pay for our cell phones and cable TV service when we can’t seem to locate it for parks and libraries?

It does put in all in perspective, doesn’t it?  But there’s more worth noting:

The critics of local government crow whenever tax rates are cut or payrolls are reduced. In my view, that’s like bragging about how much you haven’t fed your child or cheering while your house burns down. These are our sidewalks and sewers, our police officers and firefighters, our parks and pools that suffer when budgets are cut.

How far will it go? If present trends continue, the day may come when librarians have to leave a key under the doormat at each neighborhood branch, when homicides are reported to a call center in Bangalore, when every household is expected to bury its own garbage and to keep its own fire bucket at the front door.

That’s not the kind of community I want to call home, but we’re headed in that direction. Until ordinary citizens wake up to the reality of their own interests, until public officials find the courage to stop committing civic suicide, we’ll get precisely the government we pay for – and precisely the government we deserve.


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