Should your city be patterned after the tortoise or patterned after the hare?
You have heard of the story of the tortoise and the hare – the tortoise won the race by his slow and steady pace. Governments, also, can be patterned after these models. As we look forward to the decade ahead, let us examine the outcomes of each of these models.
One way to run a government is to run it like the hare. During the good times, government provides maximum services, and we are all happy as clams. Police are able to address crime, the streets are well-plowed, and parks are green and well attended. New programs sprout like buttercups in the spring rain. Employees receive great raises above the cost of living allowance, since the money is flowing. All the tax money is spent as it is received, and there is little left in the bank at the end of the period.
But what happens during the recessionary times? With no money in the bank, the new programs are cut. Government has to lay off employees and reduce such vital services as police, snow plowing and parks. Employees’ wages and cost of living allowances are cut, because the money is not available. Parks dry up, police are frustrated at not being able to control crime, and citizens become angry and upset.
A second way a government can be run is to pattern it after the tortoise. During the good times, every new position is scrutinized to see if it is essential to long-term services. Police have just enough employees to do their job, and the streets are plowed using a sustainable, long-term plan. Contracting helps considerably. Not only do we gain the efficiencies of private firms, but we are able to efficiently balance service needs with the supply for those needs.
New programs are introduced only after a close examination of their long-term sustainability. Not every cent is spent as it is received. Some government income is saved each year, knowing dips will come, at which time we will have to take from these savings. Once the reserve level objective is met, excess funds can be spent on services or returned to taxpayers.
When recessionary times come, as they certainly will, this strategy enables a government to deliver constant, reliable service. Note that governments cannot use the business model and shut down services simply because we are in a recession. Citizens expect their streets to be plowed and their police to protect them.
Under such a system, employees are given the same cost of living allowance every year, 2.5 percent, which coincides with the long-term rate of inflation. Everybody recognizes that they lose when inflation rises to 5 percent and gain when inflation drops to 1 percent.
We have all seen examples of both strategies. Some entities around us have not saved, and we are seeing drastic cuts in service and employees as a result. Others, such as Spokane Regional Health District and Spokane Valley, have built up reserve capacity allowing them to continue to deliver a constant level of service.
We have been handed a great gift, a city capable of sustaining itself during a recession. Now is not the time to switch to the hare strategy. We need to discipline ourselves and continue the winning “slow and steady” pace of the tortoise.