Public Works or Public Boondoggle?

For the past several months, an almost continual simmering issue at City Council meetings here in Cedar City has been over the new aquatic center.  First, there were the charges and countercharges over the cost overruns, and although most people eventually conceded that the additional work was necessary, there was great debate over the price tags.  Then came the continuing arguments over the operating costs, which most likely resulted in two incumbent city council members being defeated in the municipal election and the third whose term was up not even running for re-election.  At present, revenues only cover a bit more than sixty percent of the operating costs, and all three of the newly elected councilmen declare that the center should be self-sustaining.

Right!  A survey by one of the state new organizations discovered that not a single aquatic center in all of Utah had revenues that covered its costs.  One managed to recover almost eighty percent of its annual operating costs, and one only managed about fifty percent, and all the rest fell in between.  Why?  Because, like it or not, the people who use aquatic facilities are predominantly either families or seniors, and the majority of both have limited funds.  Increasing fees drops the number using the facility, and if fees are considered too high for the local community, total revenue drops even with increased per capita fees.  Add to that the fact that Cedar City is a rural university town located in a county with the lowest family income in the state, and the potential for raising fees is pretty limited.

This debate raises the eternal question about publicly funded projects.  Which are justified and which are boondoggles?  Comparatively, very few people seem to complain about public park budgets, for which no out-of-pocket fees are ever collected, but many would say that’s because they’re open to everyone.  Open, yes, but I have to say that although we have good parks here, and I’m for them, and for my tax money being used for them, I’ve set foot in them only twice in the eighteen years I’ve lived here.  I’m for them, and for the aquatic center, because they make the community a better place.  I’m also for them because I’ve lived all over the USA, and I can see that the tax levels here are low, most probably too low, and the local politicians certainly aren’t spendthrifts with the public money.  Sometimes, though, they’re idiots.

Cedar City is home to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, a good regional theatre [it won a Tony some ten years ago as one of the best regional theatres in the United States] based largely on the campus of Southern Utah University.  Founded some fifty years ago, it’s grown from a three-day event to almost a half-year full repertory theatre.  The university, however, has also grown enormously over the past two decades, from around 3,000 students to over 8,000, and there’s really not enough theatre space for both the University theatre, dance, and music programs and the Festival.  The Festival professionals have recognized this, and for years have been working on an expansion plan that would make the Festival far less dependent on university facilities.  In order to obtain some state and foundation funding, the Festival requested a grant of two million dollars from the local RDA, controlled by the city council, in order to demonstrate the required local support.  Several council members objected, and the entire $20 million plus expansion project was threatened before reason finally prevailed.

Was that $2 million a boondoggle?  Scarcely.  Economic studies have shown that the Festival generates between thirty-five and forty million dollars annually for local businesses, and provided a great economic cushion for the town some thirty years ago when the iron mines closed, and that’s been with minimal economic support from the town. For fifty years the town has benefited from the University’s support of the Festival.  Yet the decreasing percentage level of state support for the University [and any higher education institution in Utah] and the need to raise student tuition to compensate has placed the University in a position where it can no longer be so generous to the Festival.  Despite the enormous economic benefit to the town from the Festival, some politicians would call a two million dollar grant a boondoggle.

A decade ago, local politicians decided the town needed a good local theatre, one independent of the educational institutions… and they built one that holds almost 1000 seats, with good acoustics and associated modest convention facilities.  As a consequence, Cedar City has been able to host events from traveling operas to American Idol vocalists and everything in between.  But once again, the new councilmen are demanding that the theatre make money… despite the fact that the previous director [who was forced out by the new council] came very close to doing so.  NO decent performance theatre in a town of 40,000 people can do that [a lot of Broadway theatres can’t, and they charge exorbitant rates, which isn’t possible here].  But what that “borderline” economic performance doesn’t show is the thousands of people who travel to Cedar City from nearby and sometimes not so nearby rural areas for those shows and other events, and the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars they spend in town on those trips.  Nor does it count the food and lodging paid for by the performers [and when those performers include 100 member symphony orchestras, that’s not inconsequential].

Especially in rural areas like Iron County, whether a town or small city prospers or withers depends not just on low taxes, but also on the quality of life, and often a “good” quality of life can generate enormous economic benefits, which tend to flow back in tax and other indirect revenue sources.  Past management of the quality of life has led to Cedar City being named as an outstanding community for both families and retirees, but with the recent rise of Tea Party type politicians, there’s been a cry for lower taxes and spending, despite the fact that they’re already too low.  There’s a huge difference between managing public facilities well and concentrating on profit-loss figures from single facilities or projects as an indication of their community usefulness and “profitability.”

Yes… there are many public boondoggles, and I’ve seen all too many of them, but just because a public facility or expenditure doesn’t cover its operating costs directly doesn’t mean it’s a boondoggle… or that the town isn’t “profiting.”   And that’s something too many people and politicians fail to understand.



9 thoughts on “Public Works or Public Boondoggle?”

  1. Robert The Addled says:

    Unfortunately the benefits of such centers tend to be ‘soft number’ ‘unquantifiable’ data such as the area shopping and such. NPR/Marketplace/Planet Money did an excellent story a few weeks ago about why Sports Teams actually DRIVE DOWN the ability of a stadium/arena type venue to make money. Mostly because there are so many ‘blackout’ dates where other, potentially lucrative shows cannot be staged. An example given was a concert where the artist/band was already passing thru the area on the way to another venue, and was able to stage an additional show on the way.

  2. Christoph says:

    The point is not new, but why would anybody intelligent enough to do the job competently even become a politician in this country?!?

    1. Very few do… which is a large part of the problem. The other part is that, by and large and for a number of reasons,the voting public doesn’t reward competence.

      1. Joe says:

        What reasons are you thinking of?

        1. Mayhem says:

          One of them would be if a person is competent at what they do, they seldom seek recognition for their skills beyond their peer group. Which means the public at large often wouldn’t know how much work they actually do, as compared with the loud self-publiciser next door who is benefiting from the work without needing to do it.

          Successful career polititians tend to be highly competent in abilities relating to public speaking and presentation, while being less competent at the role itself. This is why they have civil servants and senior engineers to do the actual work while they take on the role of presenting it to the public. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as the internal beaurocracy doesn’t break down.

          Successful councils tend to have a highly respected head and a reasonably cooperative mixture of practical types and political types. Unsuccessful councils tend to have highly polarised mostly political factions and no head able to ride herd on them. The US Congress springs to mind as a good example there, but most parliamentary bodies would probably apply.

          The higher up the food chain you go, the further removed you become from day to day realities and the more you have to deal with simplified abstractions that can obscure the realities of a situation.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Police, fire, emergency services, highway maintenance, water and sewer, maybe trash pickup, _competent_ schools; these are functions of state and local government – along with the least regulation necessary to provide some semblance of safety and order, with the understanding that there’s always a diminishing return on trading freedom for guaranteed outcomes.

    Parks, arts, any of the rest…if someone could come up with numbers that showed how they were clearly self-sustaining, if not in direct funds than in overall increased revenue, and that said revenue was largely returned to what contributed to it rather than used for significant expansion of powers or services or otherwise diverted to other purposes; if such numbers could be rigorous; and if both federal grants and federal interference (excessive environmental impact restrictions, for instance) were kept to a minimum, I could see the point.

    But even given the premise that local government services are something that couldn’t better be done privately (which by and large I question), most politicians have run amok. Whether they’re pandering to voters that want more stuff but don’t want to pay for it, or to special interests that want to skim off the top of any money the government spends, they’re corrupt liars, by and large. The only way to fix that is to put them on an extended diet of NOTHING but critical services and revenues, and repeat that whenever they get out of hand.

    If that means that those services people really _are_ willing to pay for are endangered, then that’s the cost and the very definition of finding out who is serious and who isn’t – putting one’s money where one’s mouth is.

    No sad face here for all the underprivileged that depend on what others can pay for. If they can’t pay, they can darn well contribute otherwise by volunteering, or do without. Barring the truly unable, for which private charity should suffice (and would receive even greater support if it were not diluted by people already assuming they could be paid to be useless), freeloader = parasite.

    1. Nate says:

      R Hamilton, it was private charities that asked and begged the government to get involved because there was more need than they could handle.

      I live in Boise and the city would like to put in some mass transit. Mass transit never pays for itself directly – not in New York, San Fransisco or anywhere else. But the benefits to the city are far greater than can be measured in ticket sales; and our state legislature won’t let us pass a municipal bond to pay to set it up.

      Idaho is one of those funny states where Boise where the greater Boise area helps pay for the entire rest of the state, but we have almost no say in what happens in our state because of a republican dominated legislature that has no interest in any sort of compromise.

    2. Joe says:

      @R Hamilton, I don’t understand why you claim the government should provide those functions. As far as I can see, they’re just things you happen to use, making you a parasite.

      Why should I pay for your children to be educated? In your system they won’t even pay for my retirement, so why do I owe them a better life? If I educate them I’m just making more competition for myself when I get old and still need a job. If you want children, pay for them or educate them yourself.

      Why should I care if your house burns down? Join a volunteer fire department if you care about that.

      Why should I care for your water needs? Dig a well or haul water to your house.

      Why should I care about the roads you use? Pay a toll for the roads you want to use! It worked fine in the West in the late 1800’s and many states are reverting to that idea.

      Why should I subsidize your trash pickup? It’s private in many rural parts of the country.

      You want safety? Buy a gun.

      By the way, most of these are actually real life for many rural residents who live too far from a city to have effective policing, have to join a volunteer fire service, have wells and have to haul water when the wells dry up, etc. Only a city dweller would consider half of the items you listed as services the government should provide, so any that notion you don’t have time to do these things won’t cut much ice with me.

      So please justify these services you think the government should so generously provide for you.

  4. Wine Guy says:

    This faux-boondoggle is very similar to a faux-boondoggle in my own (very small) town of 14,000. The local parks and rec bought a gymnastics academy that has a top-flight facility. Every year, it sends 2-4 kids to college that would otherwise not be able to affort it… and it puts on 3-5 meets a year that bring over 200 families EACH TIME to the town.

    Sometimes the government spends money on foolish things (such as the ‘consultants’ that haven’t help the city council land a single large employer in 4 years despite being paid 60-100k each year) and then sometimes when there could be a real benefit from money they spend, they get feet of clay because the amounts are 60-100k each year – for the gymnastics academy… with a proven track record.

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