For school administrators, government officials and public agency budget directors, the summer of 1995 is sweating-bullets season.
No sitting back on the deck this season. Those who are given the task of charting public-spending priorities are just trying to avoid a train wreck.
On one end of the track is the engine of cutting government spending.
Barreling down from the other direction is a train carrying demands for better schools, smoother streets and greater public safety.
The public has provided engineers for both locomotives, increasing the likelihood of of a big, messy pileup.
Tensions and contradictions created by these two trains show up every week.
Only a few days ago, Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris announced the county is going broke.
Putting pedal to the metal on the train of cutting back, commissioners Harris and Steve Hasson unilaterally have begun to alter the core mission of everything from the county planning department to the county’s public health obligations.
At the same time, however, the two commissioners flew to North Carolina with Spokane County Sheriff John Goldman to a national conference on how to fight crime.
Though they went by air, they really took a ride on the train for more services.
“If the county commissioners could come back with one good idea that stops one crime, then we’ve paid for the trip right now,” commissioner Harris said.
Can we have it both ways? Be broke one week, then fly off to a conference to consider new public services the next?
And should we leave the navigation to solely two guys in the courthouse?
There are other examples of this tension.
In Coeur d’Alene, North Idaho College trustees announced last week they were increasing the school’s budget by 7% next year.
Passengers on the train of cutting back said 7% was too much and suggested NIC’s nationally-recognized athletic program (whose budget was increasing 9%) should be cut back.
Cut NIC sports?
Passengers on the train of thinking bigger pointed out that NIC basketball and wrestling programs rank among the top dozen in the country for junior colleges.
These tugs and pulls will only grow more intense.
Coeur d’Alene public schools are looking at double shifts because few administrators are confident a levy to expand facilities would pass.
The Spokane City Council projects as much as a $5 million shortfall next year.
Through it all, the public keeps pressing engineers of the two trains to pour it on.
A poll commissioned two weeks ago by Spokane’s Community Partners project suggests residents want increased law enforcement and better roads, both expensive propositions.
They also think government should be cut back.
When asked what they think should be cut, Spokane residents suggested neighborhood centers and the planning department.
When asked to offer their own remedies for coping with gang activity and poor traffic conditions, the same residents suggested prevention at the neighborhood level (activities that today are often coordinated through neighborhood centers) and better planning for growth, which is the function of a planning department.
The public needs help sorting out these contradictions.
The best hope for such sorting might be to invite more people to board one or another of these trains and then have the engineers and passengers sit down together.
Spokane School District 81 already has traveled down that track, with good results.
The district’s 1995-96 budget was drafted on the foundation of nearly two years of study and recommendations from parents, citizens and taxpayers.
These community-based discussions produced guidelines that helped direct tight resources for next year.
That is why Spokane middle schools next year will have security officers and why job training and elementary school anti-drug programs won’t continue.The community conversations led to these kinds of trade-offs.
While Spokane County commissioners are plowing ahead on their own, the city of Spokane is now trying to emulate the school district.
The city’s Community Partners program will use a series of polls and public town hall meetings to provide some guidelines for next year’s budget priorities.
By October, the Community Partners hope to have some guidelines for resource allocation to present to the City Council.
The process won’t be perfect. Time is short and the public isn’t as tuned into this process as its needs to be.
But such give-and-take will be essential in coming months and years if local government, health and education hope to avoid becoming twisted, ruined wrecks.
, DataTimes MEMO: Chris Peck is the Editor of The Spokesman-Review. His column appears each Sunday on the Perspective page.