From a conservative viewpoint, local governments should provide only the services necessary for public commerce and safety: police, fire and emergency medical protection, and road construction and maintenance.
Over time, however, citizens demand new services, and others are dictated by necessity. For example, to prevent illegal garbage dumping, Columbia County established a landfill that is now funded with its own revenues. A county water system operates via a similar enterprise fund, paid for by customers rather than taxpayers.
The landfill eventually began sorting its materials for recycling, branching out from just providing a hole to dump garbage in. The water system also provides sewerage service, and its expansion often boosts the profitability of private developments.
The story is similar with the countys Animal Care and Control. Years ago, at a compound near Grovetown, the facility was little more than a squalid holding pen for condemned strays, many of whom were tossed into a box and gassed to death with car exhaust.
Weve come a long way from the days of the dog pound. A clean, new facility in Appling now holds dozens of stray and cast-off animals. Pet-adoption groups help rescue many of the animals from euthanasia, and those that dont find a home are humanely put down by lethal injection.
Animal Care and Control personnel also removed road-kill animals from the county streets. Those animals, and the ones euthanized at the facility, have to be disposed of; until recently, that meant hauling the bodies to the countys landfill.
Because the landfill operates with its own revenues, Animal Control must pay to dump at the facility. To cut down on dumping fees, and in preparation for the landfills closure, county officials last year invested in an incinerator to cremate dead animals.
Now, however, a controversy has arisen because county officials want to make the incinerator available not just for disposal of bodies the facility generates, but for those brought in by pet owners.
hy is that so controversial? Its because there is only one other place in the area where such a service is provided: Paradise Pet Cemetery and Crematory in Augusta. Owner Richard Lord believes if Columbia County enters the cremation business and undercuts his price, his business will suffer.
Its a valid concern, one that Community and Emergency Services Director Pam Tucker recognizes. Its similar to those raised by private exercise facilities when Patriots Park started offering cut-rate memberships in its workout facility as a way of getting more use out of the new gym, which often sat empty.
The incinerator, too, is often empty - even with all the euthanized animals and loads of roadkill, the incinerator sits idle much of the time. If it were in a private business, the owner would seek to fill that excess capacity; the county is doing so with a proposal to conduct private cremations for a fee.
Unfortunately for Lord, whose rates are based on his longtime lack of competition, the countys taxpayer-funded private cremations would cost half or less of what he charges. The taxes that people pay go into the general operating budget, which funds the staff, building, equipment and vehicles, as well as the incinerator, Tucker says. It wouldnt be fair for us to charge as much as hes charging.
True. But even though Lord currently enjoys a monopoly in the market, its not fair to use the combined might of the taxpayers to provide cut-rate competition. Any excess profits the county earns from private cremations would help offset taxpayer funding of the facility, pushing it more toward self-sufficiency, so why not charge more?
Commission Chairman Ron Cross and Commissioner Steve Brown voted against the private-cremation proposal, and say theyll do so when it comes up soon for final approval. They contend the government should limit its activities, and shouldnt expand to compete with private enterprise.
At the same time, county enterprises that provide services to only some taxpayers - in this case, pet owners - should do so in a way that seeks to recoup more of the expenses otherwise borne by all taxpayers.
If Animal Control is to enter the business of offering private cremations, let it do so at prices that dont unfairly compete with private enterprise.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.