Bond Issues

By Beacon Staff

Congress’s lardy response to the Wall Street mortgage fiasco leaves me wondering about governmental fiscal responsibility – not just inside the Beltway, but here in Flathead County.

Both Whitefish and Evergreen passed public-safety bond issues in the past couple of months in special elections.

Evergreen’s fire hall is falling down, plus the department has seen a shocking increase in the number of calls, 40 percent in the last year alone.

As for Whitefish, despite their expensive city manager, resort tax and fees galore, the city found itself begging taxpayers to fund a fundamental government task – public safety – right after they thought it was a good idea to hit taxpayers for four thousand bucks a square foot. For a beach!

Now we have yet more bond issues this election.

Kalispell voters face a parks district bond. Everyone knows the parks department is hurting. Part of that might be “mission creep.” Besides basic park stuff like swing sets, sand boxes and keeping winos off the benches, the city was also offering “programs” such as dog Frisbee, photography classes and bird watching.

Next up is the joint 911 dispatch center for $6.9 million. Everyone agrees emergency calls should be efficiently directed. Stuffing a consolidated dispatch center in a dank basement somewhere would be unfair to our dispatch crews.

But Flathead County remains relatively “small.” In essence, we need a dry, safe place to put a “big radio” costing $460,000 … plus antenna ($125,000).

How dry and safe? Realistically, if an earthquake shook Hungry Horse Dam down, every bridge in the county would drop too, paralyzing emergency services anyway. When the 1964 flood happened, folks survived it. And let’s face it, terrorists aren’t after grizzlies and bull trout, they want to kill people – lots of people who we don’t have.

The other credible “disaster” scenarios we face (remember, giant wildfires are good) are a bus wreck, a jet crash at Glacier Park International or, perhaps, an avalanche on Marias piling the Empire Builder into Bear Creek.

Do we really need a miniature version of NORAD Missile Command? With $444,000 just for “design fees”? And why will furniture cost $656,000 – more than the hardware?!

Even more charming, Kalispell is charging $18,000 in future impact fees, plus $22,000 in existing impact fees (water and sewer, yes, but “fire and police” too?) plus $28,000 more for review and permitting? Couldn’t the city forgive these charges?

Finally, there is the “open-space” bond. Ten million smackeroonies.

Has anyone noticed the “sprawl crisis” has been replaced by a real crisis that will keep a lot of open space that way for a long, long time?

Should we snap it up? Well, if this is such an opportunity, why can’t Flathead Land Trust raise the money privately? The “non-profit” Nature Conservancy has $4 billion in assets. Trust for Public Land is doing pretty well, too, sitting on $238 million – $78 million in securities, not land. Each of these groups could buy those easements out of pocket change. FLT can’t, so it wants your pocket change.

In 2006, on revenues of $160,000 (which indicates the real level of interest in “open space”), FLT ran a deficit of $68,000. Does FLT expect a nice “administrative” contract from the county? If the county oversees these easements itself, can it afford to do so? If these funds are used to buy park land instead of easements, will there be Kalispell-style funding problems?

Dang, but I’m thinking that government really needs to start focusing on the essentials, on genuine public needs – not public “wants” – that only government can satisfy.

While a call center is certainly a need, there’s a lot of unnecessary “wants” on the shopping list.

Dog Frisbee? “Open Space”? Sorry, but neither are essential government programs.

The crisis on Wall Street happened because people couldn’t distinguish between wants and needs. If voters don’t make that distinction, government won’t, either.

In the end, nobody gets what they want, nor what they really need. What do they get? What they deserve.