Jerry Andree, Township Manager

Jerry Andree, Township Manager

No level of government has more impact on daily life than local government. That’s why my colleagues and I at Cranberry Township are passionate about pushing the limits of excellence to provide the best possible services to our residents and customers. However, being well-served is not a passive achievement; it is a collective undertaking. Through this blog, we offer our personal reflections on that assignment. And we hope it will help engage you in joining us on that same collaborative mission.

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Jul 05

Hiding the Cost of Government

Posted on July 5, 2011 at 1:53 PM by Jerry Andree

How do government agencies show that they’re serious about cutting costs? They pass those costs along to other units of government.

Take the case of PennDOT. Until now, the state’s transportation agency has owned and maintained the storm water collection and drainage systems associated with its highways. But now PennDOT needs to slash expenses. So it has found a small codicil of state law that allows it to wash its hands of ownership and push the responsibility for maintaining, repairing, and ultimately replacing those stormwater systems onto the municipalities its highways pass through. Of course, no state money is being allocated to help local governments achieve that.

So here’s what it means: in the short run, it will add to the cost of local governments by mandating that they perform routine cleaning and maintenance of those facilities. But local governments in Pennsylvania are struggling, too. So in many communities, that routine maintenance won’t happen. And when stormwater conduits are not maintained, they flood the roads, breaking up their pavement, causing them to fail.

What it ultimately means is that our state highway network will deteriorate much more rapidly. And as it does, the responsibility for that failure will be blamed on the local governments who weren’t able to maintain their state-created drainage systems.

It won’t take long. Regardless of where the money is coming from, before the end of this decade, those systems will need to be replaced. Our maintenance costs will rise much faster than our revenues. And unless something is done soon, that will further squeeze our ability to take care of the assets our community already owns, leaving a legacy of debt and decline for the next generation.

One possibility is that the Department could seize the already-small share of the state gasoline tax revenue we currently receive – money which helps to pay for the upkeep of locally-owned roads. Since PennDOT distributes that money, it seems likely the agency would impound it if we didn’t maintain their highway drainage systems. That would help keep the state system intact, but leave nothing for local governments to maintain their roads. Once again, local taxpayers would be left holding the bag.

Let me make clear that I am not attacking PennDOT; they are only doing what any struggling organization would do: shedding costs wherever possible. Of course, in this case, we are the recipient of those costs. But from the standpoint of individual taxpayers, there’s no upside: shifting costs is different than cutting costs. If you have to pay more in local taxes so that state and federal agencies can boast that they’ve cut their own, where’s the gain?

There are really only three choices: raise revenue, cut services, or both. None of them are popular. While it’s easy to say ‘cut taxes!’ or ‘no new taxes!’ it’s a lot harder to do. The truth is that the costs of state and federal government are spiraling out of control. Here in Cranberry, we are not only feeling the state’s financial pain through PennDOT, but also through other cost shifts, like the Department of Environmental Protection raising its permitting fees 500 percent. And where does that money come from? The pockets of local sewer and water customers.

What we need is to begin a grown-up discussion on the state level that looks at Pennsylvania’s plethora of programs, projects, laws, regulations and mandates, and then decide what they’re actually worth, what they should really cost, and who is going to pay for them. If we decide we really don’t need some of those programs, projects or mandates, they get eliminated; it’s really that simple.

Right now, in fact, there’s a statewide commission on local government which is compiling a list of candidates for scrutiny. Their report, which will identify all the mandates pushed onto local government, will be released later this year. It should make excellent reading for those who are sincere about cutting the cost of government.

Of course it will get messy; hard decisions will need to be made. Noses will get popped out of joint. But in Cranberry, we have great confidence in the wisdom of our residents. They know how budgets are balanced. They are tired of all the disingenuous rhetoric and reckless partisanship that only serve to mask our real challenges and jeopardize the financial standing of our communities.

But we are not going to close our eyes, shut our mouths, and leave that problem to the next Board or the next generation to worry about. That’s not going to happen here. Our Board of Supervisors won’t tolerate it, and neither will our residents.

So, if this practice of state and federal government quietly passing costs onto local government continues, you can expect us to speak up and tell it the way it is.

I’d like to hear you speak up as well. I welcome your ideas, comments and suggestions. You can reach me at Jerry.Andree@Cranberrytownship.org. Thanks.

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