Many times before in this space, this newspaper has expressed philosophical opposition to the size of local government surplus funds.
The school system, the largest consumer of local tax dollars, routinely flirts with socking away more than the state mandated limit of 15 percent of its budget in a rainy-day fund, an amount in the $25 million range. The county commission, with a budget less than half the size of the school system's, managed to bank an even larger surplus until cutting a check to settle the Marshall Square lawsuit.
The latter event, along with a decision last week to scale back construction of Evans Town Center Park, are good examples of how money, and the lack of it, can influence public officials' actions - for better or worse.
In the Marshall Square case, commissioners were able to make the relatively easy decision to spend $6.5 million to buy 26 acres of the disputed property to settle the Marshall family lawsuit. With some $26 million sitting in the bank, commissioners were spared the hard choice of whether that $6.5 million was the best use of the money.
Just across the street, however, is Evans Town Center Park. Initial plans for developing the 17-acre passive-recreation park were pie-in-the-sky ambitious; there just wasn't enough money in the sales tax fund to pay for it. So the park sat undeveloped while the plans were scaled back to a more realistic level.
Now, instead of the project costing an estimated $8 million, the price will come in at $3.2 million.
The lesson here is that every government project should be treated as if money is scarce - because it is. Even with those fat surplus accounts, the citizens who supplied the money in the first place don't want to see it just burning holes in bureaucrats' pockets.
With the federal government racking up the largest budget deficit in history, we perhaps should be thankful for local governments that operate comfortably in the black.
But it still stands that the best place for money is in the hands of private citizens, not in the bank accounts of governments. Unless local officials can make a better case for collectively tucking away nearly $50 million, they need to give more of that money back to the people who provided it.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.