TRANSITIONS: Bright lights, medium city, huge electric bill
She knew how it would sound. She knew what the reaction would be. But, to her credit, she said it anyway. A woman at a public forum about the Des Moines city budget had pointed out that spending $3.4 million every year on streetlights seems a bit steep and suggested that something be done about it. And the first thought that occurred to us all, of course, was that maybe some of the lights should be turned off.
“But not in front of my house,” she said, and everyone laughed. Hey, you can agonize about the dark mess that is the American economy, or you can appreciate the absurdity.
Figuring out how to fix the city budget is a smaller version of repairing the national budget, only with more space in the “hope” column. If we can avoid a costly land war with Cedar Rapids or Omaha, there has to be a way out.
But it’s not a simple matter, and when another citizen said cutting the budget by 5 percent didn’t sound like such a big deal, everyone else was thinking: Really? Actually, City Manager Rick Clark and the rest of the government gang might have been thinking more along the lines of: REALLY?!!
Unfortunately, the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years won’t be the first two-year budget cycle that has called for cuts. The city already has dumped a lot of jobs, cleans public buildings less often, doesn’t spend as much time mowing parks, etc.
At this rate, the 2015 plan for clearing snow from the streets will be to notify the public when there’s a good sale on shovels.
So the city has been asking its residents in a series of public forums: What do you want to do next?
At the infrastructure forum, held at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, a good but not huge turnout of taxpayers sat at tables and received their assignments. They were told: Here are some items from the public works budget – rank them as low, medium or high priority. Now do the same with engineering, and finally with community development.
The budget numbers, of course, show you the city’s opinions on priorities. The annual plan calls for $3 million to go toward snow and ice control, and $130,000 for alley maintenance. So a citizen might advise the brass to keep the snowplows rolling and cut back on the alley stuff, but so what? How much difference have you made?
Plowing snow, keeping those streetlights glowing and constructing things such as bridges and sewers are the Social Security, Medicare and armed forces of the local budget. If you want to make a big difference, you have to go after big, important items.
The city tends to make a sales pitch for each spending category – “Without these functions,” says the traffic signal maintenance description, “the signals would soon become nonfunctional, creating traffic congestion and increased automobile crashes.”
So go ahead and cut into that chunk of the budget, but only if you don’t mind encountering big stacks of smoldering sedans at every intersection.
That tactic almost makes you think that, along with gathering public input, it’s possible that the city also wants to defuse a lot of unproductive public ranting. The descriptions say: Not so easy, is it?
It’s not just a math problem; it’s a psychology test at the same time.
We all can see ways that others should cut back, and maybe even a few ways in which the communal belt could be tightened. But that pool of orange light outside our front door sure is comforting at night.
We all realize that we’re burning up our resources, but at the same time, we’re all afraid of the dark.
Jim Pollock is the managing editor of the Des Moines Business Record. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org