The Paradox of Government

"Other than bailed-out banks and Wall Street brokerage houses, I can’t think of any private companies that gave raises this year after their revenues fell."


 Mike Boslet, Editor in Chief
Mike Boslet

The city of Orlando's fiscal 2008-2009 budget included (and I swear I am not making this up) “increases in employee compensation to help keep pace with market conditions.” City workers got 3 percent raises. Orange County’s ’08-’09 budget provided employees with increases that ranged from 2 to 4 percent.

Meanwhile, Orange County Public Schools cut teachers’ jobs left and right and probably will close several schools next school year. Teachers have been warned that any pay increases would be offset by more job cuts.

Next school year could dawn with jam-packed classrooms and disgruntled educators, not to mention fewer after-school activities for students. Parents needn’t worry, however, because the city and county will have more police officers on the streets.

Despite revenue declines and the prospect of the local economy eroding further, the city came up with a budget that increased spending by 13 percent over the previous year. Faced with a $31 million gap in revenue, it raised property taxes to help make up the shortfall. The city’s salaries and benefits grew by $18.6 million over 2008, with health-care costs and the addition of 25 police officers pumping up the overall budget.

Orange County, on the other hand, showed some fiscal restraint, cutting spending by $38 million. But it still came up with the money to increase salaries and benefits. Other than bailed-out banks and Wall Street brokerage houses, I can’t think of any private companies that gave raises this year after their revenues fell.

Even more mystifying is the ongoing push to go through with funding the last two downtown-venue projects. Projected tourism tax receipts were leveraged to the hilt to fund even the possibility of constructing the three venues at no cost to property owners. But the recession has hurt tourism spending and frozen the bond market. The money sources that were expected to support the projects when they were approved have all but vanished. Now Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer is looking for alternative ways to pay for the two yet-to-be-started projects.

Running up debt and carefree spending are, like, so federal government, Mr. Mayor. Best to rein in your plans and be happy to get the civic arena done on time.

Why are we even having a conversation about modernizing a barely used football stadium and spending $425 million on a cultural arts facility when the unemployment rate is rising, home values are falling and teachers, who own houses and pay taxes, stand to lose their jobs?

Dyer should do the right thing and take the Citrus Bowl renovation off the table. Construction of the performing arts center can wait until the economic picture improves. Orlandoans have lived this long with Bob Carr as a sorry excuse for a concert hall. We can continue going to it (or, in many cases, continue to avoid going to it) for a few more years.

If the city and county are really serious about keeping pace with economic conditions, next year’s budgets will be smaller than 2008-2009’s. No one on the public payrolls will get pay increases; pay freezes are better than the alternative. Government salaries cannot grow while the tax base declines. Raising taxes and increasing user fees are counterproductive—not to mention cowardly—measures when residents have less money to spend.

Our public education system has had to conform to “market conditions,” and it’s long past time that our local governments do the same.

Categories: Column