Posted by: bkivey | 12 May 2011

Brother, Can You Spare $548 Million?

We’re having a special election on 17 May, and if you live in Portland and Multnomah County, you’ll be asked to vote on a school construction bond north of half a billion dollars. The 30-year bond is supposed to be renewed every six years, and the total cost, excluding interest, comes to $750 for every man, woman, and child in the county, or about $25 per year per person. The bond, if approved, will be used to fund full renovations of nine schools in the Portland Public School (PPS) system and lesser work on the remaining schools. There’s another operating levy on the ballot at a mere $59 million to fund teacher’s salaries through 2015. Both levies together will increase the average homeowner’s taxes by $400 annually; not exactly chump change.

I don’t live in Multnomah County, primarily because the county’s never seen a tax it didn’t like, and I normally wouldn’t care about a subject that is, honestly, as dry as dirt. What piqued my interest was an article in the 27 April edition of the Willamette Weekly, that arbiter of all things hipster in the Portland metro area. Entitled Schools of Salmon Got Your Money, Why Not Schools for Kids? the paper makes the case for approving both bond measures, but not in the usual do-it-for-the-children-so-we’ll-all-be-prosperous-in-the-future manner, although they do mention that angle.

No, what the editorial staff did was to point out some of the more, shall we say, less than necessary measures county voters have approved in the recent past. Specific examples cited are:

  • 2008 – $125 million tax hike for the Oregon Zoo
  • 2010 – $72 million bond to fund new equipment, such as trucks, fireboats, and radios for the fire department.
  • 2010 – $85 million annually in lottery funds for parks and wildlife habitat.

I can see the fire bond; no one wants their house burning down. But the article’s main point, although they’re too nice to explicitly say so, is that if voter’s are going to approve every feel-good measure that comes down the pike they shouldn’t complain when necessary infrastructure bills come due.

This point goes to illustrate a larger truth: the body politic rarely considers the relative values of a particular expenditure. Police and fire departments need to be funded, streets need to be maintained, and schools need to be operated regardless of whether fish and birds have pretty places to live.  In truth salmon could go extinct and not one person on the planet would die or even be much inconvenienced. The overwhelming majority of people would neither know nor care.

It’s important for voter’s to consider the difference between a necessity and a luxury. Single-issue advocates are very good at presenting their particular pet project as somehow vital to the community, but as many a person has learned to their chagrin, if you spend your money on luxuries, you’re going to be hurting when the rent comes due.

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