We Live in Interesting Times

By Beacon Staff

The federal government just announced 573,000 Americans filed initial jobless claims for the first week of December, the worst since 1982. And in the third quarter of 2008 alone, household net worth fell 5 percent – $2.8 TRILLION in stocks and home “value” gone poof. As one economist told the Washington Post, Americans “have to get their balance sheets in order.”

Good advice … ignored by the political elites in Washington, who insist on warring over whether to bail out Detroit for $14 billion, right after $700 billion for Wall Street’s numbskulls. Interesting how you can print money to paper over your idiocy, eh?

Montana Governor Schweitzer, who can’t print money, claims he’s reduced the planned state budget by about $193 million, including $49 million of federal funds. Fine, but remember he started by planning on a $1 billion state surplus, now shrunk to a fourth of that. Will there be a surplus at all by the end of the session?

Then there is Kalispell. With all the fees they were charging against “growth,” perhaps they thought they were printing money. With growth stopped, now there are no fees. They just cut their budget $100,000 on a general fund of about $10.5 million. Still, there’s a new city hall to pay for, a payroll to make and cash reserves of a little over $258,000, less than one-fifth of what a town that size should have in the bank. That should be interesting, too.

Most interesting is what is about to happen in Whitefish.

Whitefish Council approved a roughly $24.5-million 2009 budget on Sept. 15, of which $14.5 million was operations money, without any members of the public choosing to comment. Maybe Whitefish’s budget, at two-and-a-half times larger than Kalispell’s, had citizens too stunned to speak.

Well, after Bear Stearns, Lehman, Detroit … Semitool, Plum Creek, NUPAC … now what will folks say? Pray for snow?

In my view, Whitefish has zoomed off on all sorts of fiscal and political tangents the past few years. The city dallied with $990 chicken permits, ice cream murals, fancy consultants, a city attorney more expensive than Montana’s own elected attorney general. The doughnut? The Critical Areas Ordinance? The Safeway façade? Dan Weinberg’s train set? And we can’t even get a left turn arrow on Second?

What about the big-ticket items? The failed $3.1-million beach bond ($160 a square foot for dirt) showed a complete lack of discipline by the council. Then there was the parking garage, about 220 spaces for $6.6 million, $30,000 per spot – now trimmed to 81 paved spots for “only” $594,000, $7,300 each. Um, how about gravel for now?

Everyone has known for years that round-the-clock emergency service in Whitefish was inevitable. So, when the council utterly blew planning for the single most critical function of municipal government, public safety, voters had to approve a 27 percent mill-levy hike to pay for it without the city making cuts elsewhere in the 2009 budget.

That was then, before the economy tanked. September seems a long, long time ago.

Today citizens want signals that government is just as interested as we are about getting the balance sheets in order, if not more so.

With Shirley Jacobson’s resignation, council has a chance to signal playtime is over. The last few vacancies have been filled in a rather casual, informal manner, such as Jan Metzmaker’s recent fill-in.

But now it might be appropriate to open the net a little wider.

John Murdock, who unsuccessfully ran for council in 2007, has made public his desire to replace Jacobson. His open letter published in the Whitefish Pilot indicates he’s a budget hawk with an MBA. Whitefish agenda minutes further confirm his claim that he contributed to clearing up a six-figure unpaid-fines backlog from the city court.

Are there other budget hawks out there? Other qualified persons? I for one am interested in seeing if there are, and interested to see if the council can select the best candidate.

Interesting times, indeed. Merry Christmas.