Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Who Gets A Raise? The Government

originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, March 8, 2009


“Hey, you!” I said to my boss. “Yeah, I’m talking to you. You know the money you’ve been paying me? It’s not enough. I want more.”

“Sorry, no can do,” my boss said apologetically. “We can’t afford more than we already pay. You know how dismal the economy’s been.”

“Whether you can afford it isn’t my problem,” I insisted. “My problem is, I want more money and if you don’t hand it over I’ll put a lien on your house or revoke your driver’s license or something.”

These are serious consequences. Most people, when told “Gimme more money or give up your house and driving privileges,” have no choice but to pay. Not my boss, though. He only laughed, and after a few confused moments I realized why.

“Oops,” I said meekly. “Never mind. For a moment there, I thought I was a government worker and you were ‘My Boss’ only in the sense of being ‘The taxpayers who fund my salary.’ But I forgot: unlike a taxpayer, you have the right to say ‘no’ when folks demand more than you can afford, don’t you? Dang.”

I blame my mistake on geography. I live in Connecticut, where towns and cities get most of their money from “property taxes,” which is the tax people pay if they want to own property. Unfortunately, owning “property” doesn’t always mean you have actual “money,” especially in today’s economy.

For the past umpteen years, Nutmeg municipalities had the habit of passing annual tax increases equal to or greater than the rate of inflation. When the economy was expanding and people’s wages rose each year, this was merely an annoyance. But nowadays, taxpayers facing pay cuts or wage freezes (if not complete loss-of-job) simply can’t afford higher tax bills. Yet their local councils are inflicting them anyway.

Even worse, tax bills are an all-or-nothing proposition. Most living expenses can be cut one way or other; turn down the heat to lower your utility bill, or buy cheaper cuts of meat to slash grocery costs. But if your city assessor says “You owe $7,000 tax on your house,” you can’t counter with, “How about I seal off the den, and you knock a thousand off my bill?”

Municipalities don’t write budgets the same way you do. When you plan a budget, you count how much money you have and then decide what you can afford to spend. Government does it backwards: count how much money they plan to spend and then set tax rates so they can afford it.

And if you say “Sorry, I can’t give you any more,” the government (unlike me with my boss) really can tell you, “Whether you can afford it isn’t my problem. I want more money and if you don’t hand it over I’ll put a lien on your house or revoke your driver’s license or something.”

I’ve lost count, these past few weeks, of how many stories this newspaper has printed about city-government workers getting wage increases while their private-sector counterparts do without. The rationale seems to be, “A basket-case economy is no problem when we can force taxpayers to fill the basket with money.”

Enjoy your pay raises, guys! I’ll be subsisting on oatmeal and memories so I can afford to fund them.