The plague of government: county spending

There is an insidious plague sweeping across America. As with locusts of Biblical proportions governments’ consume the productive works of citizens and become pestiferous in all aspects of our lives. Levels of community, city, town, county, State and federal governments feed from each other and prey on us.

I see an analogy to a closely and frequently sheared shrub. The plant is regularly clipped of the new growth that sustains it. Gradually, over the years, it becomes less vigorous and denser preventing light and air from reaching the interior. Dead areas appear. Parasitic insects and diseases infest the inner stems and under leaf surfaces. Unnoticed, they slowly suck the health and vigor from the formerly productive shrub.

One such affliction operates in New Hanover County, North Carolina, a small area (191 sq. mi.) with a resident population of about 214,000 people (112,000 who live in the city of Wilmington). What goes on here plays out regularly in 100 counties in the State and 3000 counties across the American States.

The setup – A Wilmington StarNews report by Tim Buckland reveals some of the problems we face with this malady. The county manager has proposed spending nearly $307 million with a property tax increase. The elected commissioners say they can’t find anything to cut from the budget. They have a $64 million fund balance in case of a catastrophic hurricane (link below).

Some want to use this fund to offset their spending more than the revenue take. One commissioner hopes for increased money from taxes on higher valued property to materialize.  Others fear a lower bond rating resulting in higher interest rates for future debt these people will assuredly give us (our debt service cost now is $17 million).

Only one of the five representatives opposes a tax increase that will move more money out of the private economy and into nonproductive government programs. Instead of cutting costs of their ever-expanding operations, our officials always look for more ways to take money from the productive economy and distribute it to unproductive activities. People we should trust to spend our earnings appropriately are politically tuned to serve interests at odds with the general welfare of all.

The sting – Looking over 267 pages of county budget expenses it doesn’t take long to see where our money goes, but the question we ask is why it is spent (link below).

According to the “2015 Book on Business” published by the Greater Wilmington Business Journal New Hanover County government is the 7th largest full-time employer in the County with more than 1,600 employees. (The public school system is 2nd with 4,443 employees.) The budgeted cost of the County human resources (personnel) office is nearly $810,000; to advocate for all these people.

At least 50 departments and programs budget for salaries, benefits, and operating costs—some costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, others tens of millions. The County government school system costs us $83,000,000 and the Cape Fear Community College is budgeted for more than $12,000,000.

Just the health insurance benefits paid to county employees will cost us $14,000,000 in this budget. In addition they get paid retirement benefits.  While private industry workers earn average weekly wages of $750 (many with no benefits), government employees average $883 per week with job security. A stated “focus” of the commissioners is to “increase the local average weekly wage.” Apparently, that means wages of government employees. County budgeters seem to have little concern for private wage earners who struggle to pay their bills as well as those of the public employees.

Salaries and operating costs for the County commissioners and the County manager cost taxpayers about $1.4 million. Their “TV/Public Affairs” and Budget offices spend more than $1 million. The County Finance office spends $1.2 million. Commissioners believe it’s essential to hand out $4.4 million to the poor city of Wilmington and to a huge, inefficient multi-million dollar bus boondoggle. They distribute another nearly $1 million to Wilmington self-serving business projects and subsidies to the film industry. Their Info-Tech office costs $7 million and the Tax Office takes another $3.8 million. The commissioners agree to give away $1.7 million of our money to their favorite charity groups euphemistically called “Outside Agencies.”

Our representatives plan to spend more than $1 million on a County attorney and “Legal Risk Management” (to protect themselves?). The Board of Election and the Registrar of Deeds cost us more than $2.5 million.  Commissioners can’t find any savings from $9 million spent on “County Property Management” and another $2 million they spend on vehicle management. They need all of $5.5 million they budget on “emergency management.” Why not $10 million? We won’t be able to handle emergencies without bureaucrats telling us what to do?

The Sheriff must have $42.6 million to keep all those patrol cars running about (five or six show up at every fender-bender, but no one gets out to direct traffic). And we are apparently much safer from stray animals because the Animal Services Unit spends $1.3 million.

I’ll bet our private developers are happy to know that County planners and inspectors are around to “help,” with a public cost of $4.7 million. And the Cooperative Extension needs $538,000 to help all those farmers in the County learn how to farm properly.

And we should be especially grateful to our commissioners for keeping us healthy with multi-millions they spend on the Health Department ($1.3 million); Environmental Health—whatever that is ($1.5 million); Vector Control (?); Good Shepherd Program (?); Laboratory (?); and a Local “Bioterrorism Program”—you never know.  Some women and children are treated to multitudes of generous special programs by our benevolent County compliments of taxpayers:

Women’s Preventative Health (Men’s Preventative Health was zeroed out of the budget); Community Health ($419,000); Health Promotion; Safe Kids; WIC ($730,000); WIC Regional Lactation Training Center; WIC Breast Feeding Peer Counseling; Nutrition; Mobile Dental Unit ($289,000); Epidemiology ($1.6 million); Tuberculosis, Pregnancy Care Management, Maternal Health, Child Health and School Health ($3,593,000); Family Counseling Services; Mental Health ($1 million); HIV/STD Prevention Outreach; Child Coordination 4 Children ($350,000); Special Assistance to Adults ($1.3 million); and the Department of Social Services ($21 million).

Then there are millions for: Adoptive Assistance ($1.2 million); Foster Care Assistance ($2.7 million); Child Day Care ($8.4 million) and Child Support Services ($1.9 million). No savings here.

Add another $2- plus million for various energy programs and we’ll all be cool. We must pay to save the Earth.

Juveniles are a big problem in New Hanover County requiring $1.7 million for the “Community Justice Service.”

We seniors in the County can’t get by without government help. “Senior Services” are surely well worth $2.4 million. We want the Senior Center for playing cards, partying and exercising—keeps us out of trouble. We also can’t make it without “Health & Wellness,” “Recreation Outreach” and “Independent Life Services” programs. Getting old is tough. We deserve special benefits.

Libraries are deemed a necessary part of our happiness. Few people today, apparently, have access to newspapers, books and magazines. And who can afford digital devices? Commissioners will gladly spend $4 million to help out (the downtown Wilmington library serves the added function of a “homeless” shelter). Also, they need to spend $135,000 on a Law Library for all those struggling lawyers in the County.

Everyone loves parks. We are in deep debt because of the desire for fun stuff, but who cares. People want it. And we must pay $5.6 million to maintain “Parks and Gardens” in the budget.

And who doesn’t use our County museum. Without it how could we learn about history? At just over $1 million it’s probably a bargain. Hey, what’s another million bucks? It provides more jobs and a place for kids to hang out.

Come to think about it, as one County commissioner said of the proposed tax increase, this budget may be “a good deal.” I guess we’ll just have to accept the official word that they might be able to find “nickels” of savings in it, but they just can’t find “big dollars.”

I found lots of big-dollar savings I would suggest in this budget, but then I’m not a big government insider with special connections, and possessing the wisdom of our County commissioners to know how best to spend our money.



About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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