Column: How much county spends less important than how it’s spent

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 20, 2002

The Freeborn County Commissioners have had a busy summer. Above and beyond their regular responsibilities &045; attending meetings, listening to constituents, and passing resolutions &045; they have also had to make decisions about courthouse demolition and renovation plans. I admire the courage of those who are willing to push those issues to final resolutions; we’ve debated this long enough. I especially appreciate those commissioners who are willing to take the appearance of the courthouse more seriously than it was in previous renovations and expansions. The appearance of public buildings is a reflection on the priorities of a community’s residents.

But they don’t get much time to relax, because now that fall is approaching, they have to decide on the outlines of a county budget for next year and make out a list of programs they can afford to fund.

I’m glad I’m not a commissioner, and I am grateful that others are willing to take on the responsibility. For one thing, not being a commissioner makes it easier for me to criticize their decisions &045; from a safe distance. But mainly I’m glad I’m not shouldered with a commissioner’s job because they have to decide who gets funding and who doesn’t. While I often dream about what I would do if I were in charge of everything, I know that in real life I don’t possess the kind of decisiveness that elected office requires.

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This year, as in most years, the number of groups asking for dollars is longer than the available money. And the groups I’ve seen asking for funding are all worthwhile. How can anyone easily decide who gets approved and who gets turned down? If we use taxpayer money to expand the animal control facility in the county, will we have enough to also help fund a countywide transportation system? If we resurface all the county blacktops that need it, will there be enough left to fund programs for poor residents or provide county libraries with enough money to maintain their programs? And the list can’t include the unexpected spending needs when emergencies arise, either quiet ones, like an economic recession that won’t go away, or dramatic ones, like a tornado or another major fire.

Once the decisions have been made, and the list of approvals and denials is finalized, the process doesn’t end, however. Soon people will be complaining about using taxpayer money for this, or about not spending enough on that &045; I’ll probably be doing my fair share of it, at least when it comes to issues like bike trails and stray animal control. But that kind of whining and complaining is always there; it’s to be expected.

Unfortunately, some of the complaining will likely come from a member of the commission itself, who has consistently refused to give up his opposition to any decision for the sake of unity in the past. That kind of arrogance is not anywhere close to my understanding of a &uot;loyal opposition&uot; within government, and undermines the authority of the commission. It also creates a situation where no decision they make has the appearance of being really final or definitive.

My own sense of fairness leads me to the position that, when it comes to using taxpayer money, the programs that potentially will have the most positive impact on the community are the ones worth funding first; the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. For example, I would like the street that runs past my house to be blacktopped, but dealing with problems caused by dust and mud on that road provides benefits to only a few county residents. There are other things that have a higher priority.

The exact amount set as the levy doesn’t matter as much to me as the way it is spent. There are a lot of things that we all have to pay for if we want our county to be a good place to live. So fiscal responsibility is of more concern than the exact level of taxation; once the budget is set, whatever it might be, then we must all learn to live within its limits. And we need to keep our disappointment with decisions we didn’t like in perspective. A lot of good things will get funding, even if it’s hard to see it at first.

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.