"These streets will make you feel brand new,
Big lights will inspire you,
Let's hear it for New York, New York."
- Empire State of Mind
Jay-Z with Alicia Keys
How many politicians and bureaucrats does it take to make a bond-rating presentation in New York?
For Columbia County, the answer seems to be 13.
Sorry. That isn't much of a punch line. Then again, hauling that many people to The Big Apple to meet with bond rating agencies at a cost of nearly $16,000 isn't much of a joke, either.
As with most such situations, it isn't really the money; it's the principle. In the grand scheme of things - and in this case, the grand scheme is some $50 million in water utility bonds - $15,572 isn't much money.
In fact, compared to the $400,000 estimated to be saved by the lower bond ratings resulting from the trip, it's barely a drop in the fiscal bucket. And county officials obviously want that to be the comparison: Hey, we spent nearly 16 grand, but we'll save almost half a million. Such a deal!
Fine. But unless every county official is tone-deaf to the public these days, they have to know that taxpayers are not in the mood to find themselves footing the bill for a baker's dozen of elected officials and county employees to take a jaunt to New York.
The purpose of the trip, as explained by Deputy Administrator Scott Johnson, was to meet with the major bond-rating agencies. County officials put on a dog-and-pony show, touting the county's fiscal health in order to make the case for better bond ratings.
Better ratings mean lower risk for investors in the bond market, which means the bonds not only will sell quicker but also carry a lower interest rate. That means more of the borrowed money goes into county projects, because less has to be spent paying interest.
Clearly, that is a good thing. And county officials have a right to brag about their success from this trip: even though the county's bond rating already is among the highest in the state, they were able to persuade three bond rating agencies to give even better ratings.
That's a job well done, and they deserve the applause.
They also deserve a serious scolding for acting as if the citizens don't care what they spend en route to getting better ratings.
Here's who took the trip: In addition to Johnson, all five commissioners went - Chairman Ron Cross, and commissioners Ron Thigpen, Charles Allen, Trey Allen and Scott Dean; County Administrator Steve Szablewski; County Attorney Doug Batchelor; Water Utility Director Billy Clayton; Finance Director Leanne Reece; Construction and Maintenance Services Director Matt Schlachter; County Clerk Erin Hall; and Public Relations Manager Marilyn Heuer.
Can anyone seriously argue that all five commissioners, much less all 13 of these people, were essential to making this trip a success?
Undoubtedly all of the commissioners wanted to be there. None of them want to be left at home, pouting, wondering why he didn't get to go with the big boys to the big city. But all five of them?
And certainly the county administrator, or the deputy administrator. But both?
Of course the county attorney should go, and it makes sense to take the finance director. You can make a case that the water utility director should go, because the focus was on water bonds, or the construction director, because the money from the bonds will be used for construction. But both?
No offense to the county clerk or the public relations manager (who helpfully provided the names of those taking the trip), but were either of them essential on this junket? Both?
I'm sure they all had a wonderful time. I even heard one of the commissioners and his wife had a splendid afternoon shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue, though they didn't buy anything because it was too expensive. For their money, that is.
But I'm sure a post card only cost a buck or so. Too bad none of them remembered to send us one.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail email@example.com. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)
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