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The Common Good

by Dennis Green

The common weal, the commonwealth, community, the common good. We struggle to balance this virtuous goal off against the equally virtuous goal of private property and individual rights. As a libertarian, I tend to believe that much mischief is done in the name of the public good, mischief which actually enriches and empowers special interests.

Civic virtue. Public schools as a cultivation of the notion of the public good done by education. A Progressive tradition that draws on a notion of public morality and shared interests.

Government is cancerous, however, like a runaway growth on the body politic, and now, as government at all levels is going bankrupt, in deficit, it’s because of its rampant growth in past boom times. In California, even with Prop. 13, city, county, and state budgets grew faster than wages did.

Now, we’re told by so-called “Progressives” that essential services will be cut unless we raise our own taxes yet again. Citizens of Alameda are already paying special “parcel taxes” tacked onto their property taxes, but plans are in the works to ask for yet more.

But the real issue, I’m convinced, are bloated payrolls. Over the past 20 years, during those infamous “Boom Times,” the number of public employees at every level has grown. I’ve lived here all that time, and did not register a concomitant growth or improvement in essential services.

On the State level, the payroll grew, while the California State spending grew. And again, did you or I enjoy a matching improvement in our way of life? If anything, the costs of services — from the DMV to the tuition paid at the public colleges and universities — have skyrocketed during that time. And meanwhile, the lack of transparency persists.

While courts have mandated that the salaries of public employees and the budgets of various departments be made public, it takes some serious spelunking to dig these figures out. In city council meetings, town hall discussions, and meetings of committees and commissions, many responsible directors, when asked to detail the direct benefits of their efforts, are hard-pressed, or unable to do so.

That goes for the $253,000 just approved for 2009-2010 for PSBA, WABA, GABA and the Chamber of Commerce. With barely any tax payer input.

Getting their act together is now very much in demand. The last superintendent of AUSD, the public school district, resigned under the cloud of suspicion left in the air by Measure H, which discriminates against business owners whose enterprises take up more square footage. In a maritime economy like Alameda’s, that’s just plain dumb. Boatyards, marinas and the like inevitably take up more space.

But now it is proposed that Measure H, challenged in the courts, be replaced by a new parcel tax costing Alameda property owners even higher fees. So much for the new school Superintendent, Kirsten Vital, and her new beginnings!

Likewise, the last City Manager resigned under dubious circumstances, following the passage of Proposition P, which more than doubled the eal estate transfer fees in Alameda, even as the housing market was collapsing, measure opposed by the Alameda Association of Realtors, but not the Chamber of Commerce. And while there have been layoffs of city employees, new cutbacks in State funding, primarily in re-development funds, may confront the city with a new deficit of some $6 million, and it remains to be seen whether the new City Manager will make up that shortfall by more economies, or by asking for more new taxes.

The common good for the people of Alameda is a goal we can all support, in principle at least. But merely adding to the payroll, or piling on more taxes, doesn’t guarantee that the lifestyle of the citizenry will be preserved, let alone improved.

There’s a shaggy-dog story making the rounds of the Internet, called, “How Gubmint Works,” and it details how first, a night watchman is hired to guard a vast scrap yard in the desert, and then, you guessed it, soon there is a planning department and a quality control department and a human resources department, and when the budget cutbacks come, only the night watchman is laid off.

That’s how Gubmint works, and that’s why I believe that the smaller it is, the better it serves the common good.

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