Everyone should now be aware that the downturn in the economy has affected almost every individual's life. Bill Gates has lost billions, not that he is likely sleepless at night like the thousands who have lost their jobs.
Businesses large and small have laid off workers at all levels, euphemistically calling it downsizing. More forthright companies call it laying off. They don't like the word "fired," they save that word for getting rid of people they wish they hadn't hired in the first place.
Not surprisingly government has been caught in the great recession. When the economic bubble was at its peak, governments hired freely and were generous in the contracts they signed with the unions who deal with public employees. Pay was more than good, and benefits were equally generous if not excessive in a few of the contracts.
Now that the public doesn't have the money to buy stuff, the sales tax revenue government expected simply isn't there. Washington state, counties, and cities are all in serious financial trouble with obligations they can't meet without reducing spending, and that means reducing staff along with prioritizing spending on what is absolutely essential.
In Seattle, first in the Nickels administration and now in Mayor Mike McGinn's administration, there is an official policy for city departments to find or invent ways to create revenue for the city. The incentive for city workers to create revenue is simple. They are clearly aware that their jobs are at stake if there isn't enough revenue to issue their pay checks.
Increasing revenue could take many forms: raising taxes where possible, fees for anything that can have a fee attached, and, of course, raising any power and utility rate they can. While Seattle City Light is owned by the people and was originally conceived to deliver power "at cost," the potential shift to profit would be a big step.
Now our city administrators seem to visualize City Light with dollar signs in their eyes, a ready-made cash cow where rate increases are easily rationalized as incentive for using less power and being greener.
City Hall's emphasis on revenue encourages its departments to find ways to make money, to think entrepreneurially about creating little enterprises where every they can.
From the public point of view, the idea of fees for services certainly isn't a radical idea and is well ingrained into our way of life. We understand we pay for telephone, cable, internet, and, of course, each time our garbage can is emptied.
When we turn on the shower, flush the toilet, or plug in a toaster, we expect to pay utility bills, which are managed by government. But should we pay a separate fee besides our taxes at a turnstile to use our parks, have our roads maintained, or public buildings cared for?
Still, many citizens have long grumbled at the city's policy of charging a fee to challenge a city land-use policy. The city now also charges a fee to park in front of your own home if you live near the new light-rail line. The fire department once inspected buildings to discover any possible fire hazards that might endanger the public. Fire personnel still do it, but now they charge a fee. Among the many frustrations in life we pay more in property tax if our residence has a beautiful view; but if the view is blocked by a new building, government says "tough."
Entrepreneurialism sounds very American, almost patriotic. It clearly supports a theme that seems part of American genetic makeup: going into business and making money.
When government goes into business, however, there is the distinct possibility that it may start competing with private enterprise, the other mainstay of American economy. Traditionally this has been somewhat of a no-no, but in today's bureaucratic culture, where keeping your government job motivates new thinking, competition with private companies is now becoming a very attractive idea.
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