Road commissions everywhere are feeling the heat after the winter storm that hit Oakland County and other areas of the country.
In Oakland County, Michigan, the last snow fall wasn’t really that bad. Historically, it was just about average for a winter storm. It dumped about three inches on top of icy slush. The drive to work on Monday morning was slow going and dangerous. Some people took up to two or three hours to get to work because of accidents caused by road conditions.
The road commission is being blamed for the mess when we only have ourselves to blame.
Municipalities are under tremendous stress because of budget short falls in the last couple of years. The tax system that has been developed to provide funding for all the services we have come to expect from city and county governments is flawed. With housing values falling, foreclosures taking homes, income dropping from those that are still working and unemployment reaching record levels, the flow of cash has been reduced.
No one wants to pay more for anything, including taxes, for the goods and services that we need. On a personal basis, much of what we purchase are things that we really don’t need and can be placed on hold until we have better income. But, much of what we spend our money on is for the important things like fuel to get around, insurance and health care.
Cities and counties provide some of the most basic services. Police and fire protection, water, sewer services and road maintenance. When budgets are cut because of the loss of tax revenue, those services need to be curtailed or eliminated.
Politicians only have two choices when it comes to budgets. They can either cut expenses or raise taxes. Right now, they are cutting expenses on some of the most needed services. In some cases, they are eliminating the some services completely. Some municipalities are disbanding their police protection or are partnering with other communities to share their fire services.
Raising taxes seems to be out of the question for most politicians. The anti tax movement in the United States has taken hold of the voters. Residents won’t even examine the situation that their community is in to consider a short term tax increase. This would allow the services that are important to a community to be maintained while moving through the slow economy.
There is the argument that raising taxes would increase the cost and harm a recovery. But, better the cost you know than the one you don’t. If the situation of curtailing services continues such as road maintenance during a winter storm, social costs are going to rise. These costs we often don’t know the exact amount and once they are part of the cost structure, they are difficult to impossible to get out. Keep in mind, people that arrive to work late cost their employers money that goes into the cost of the product. Every accident that is a result of poorly cleared roads during a snow storm will increase insurance rates. Pot holes and broken pavement increases the cost of auto repairs. The increase in crime because of poor police protection will have an effect on the cost of everything. Fire protection that is subpar will allow fires to destroy more, increasing the cost of building materials and insurance. The cost of curtailing services will also mean people will lose their lives.
Communities need to do two things. First, they must decide what level of services is important to the safety of the community. This can be set by the residents but most also consider industry standards, social costs and the priorities of other communities. Then, they need to understand that in order to sustain the level of service that they expect, there needs to be a tax revenue stream that provides enough funding. That means that during a slow economy, as we are experiencing, there may need to be a short term tax increase to get the community through.
No one, as said before, wants to pay more than necessary for anything, including taxes. But, paying less than what is needed to maintain an adequate level of services only means that the social cost of everything else will increase.