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.Seattle Public Utilities hopes to relocate a new recycling center on the old site. In their released plan, they casually mention that they will later open a reuse store where the public can buy back items that others have discarded.
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.
Some insight into the extent of this government-in-business thinking comes from a plan by Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). In our current hard times, SPU is planning to build a new, multimillion-dollar garbage collection and recycling center adjacent to its existing transfer site in South Park. It's an industrial area just south of the First Avenue bridge. This is a place where garbage trucks dump their garbage into a big pit and then transfer it to large trucks, which transport it to a train for shipment all the way to northeastern Oregon.
SPU also hopes to relocate a new recycling center on the old site. In their released plan, they casually mention that they will later open a reuse store where the public can buy back items that others have discarded.
Does it sound green and environmental? It does, and fits Mayor McGinn's green patina and Seattle's green image.
Reusing items others have discarded is hardly new and has been as American as the Bill of Rights. Past generations always recycled as though it were part of our genome. Due to planned obsolesce the current generations haven't recycled as much, but hard times and re-education is changing that.
What's wrong with the idea of a recycling store? Actually nothing, except right next door to this proposed new city-owned and -operated reuse store is a privately owned reuse store, which would undoubtedly suffer a major financial loss if not being put out of business altogether. When city employees whose wages are paid from tax dollars start selling stuff they didn'êt have to pay for, the phrase "unfair business practices" comes to mind.
A private reuse store often pays for some of the materials they sell. There is an entire shadow economy of those who pick up and resell any useful item. It rids our city of junk and pays a meager wage to those who need it.
To make matters even more frustrating, the city doesn't allow anyone, including reuse and second-hand stores, to pick over any items left at transfer stations. There is lots of good stuff that, with minor repair, could be made useful again.
It's well understood that the attendants at transfer stations divert some of the choicer items into their trucks after work. Yet, the city doesn't let the private reuse workers even look at what is being discarded.
It would seem appropriate for Seattle City Council to examine the larger issue of how much city entrepreneurialism is really necessary. Might there be a debate about what our basic tax structure should pay for? If our council can find the time to debate and decide what's best for Arizona's immigration policies, it would be fitting that it also spend some time considering whether our city should be actively competing in any way with any small private companies trying to survive in this tight economy.