Rethinking Those ‘Wasteful’ Claims About Government

By John A. Ostenburg

When I hear people at the health care town hall meetings, and in other public gatherings, screaming that they don’t want government to run anything because it’s so darn inefficient, I want to scream myself.

As mayor of a municipality of about 25,000 residents, I am very well acquainted with lots of things that government runs very efficiently – and very cost-effectively too, I might add – and it bothers me that so many citizens want to ignore this fact.

In my town, for example, homeowner property taxes are rather high due to the lack of a lot of commercial activity. The average homeowner pays somewhere in the vicinity of $5,000 per year in property taxes, and about one-third of that goes to municipal government. The rest is divided up among school districts, the township, the county, and various special districts such as forest preserve and mosquito abatement, etc. So, on average, homeowners in my town pay about $1,500 per year to city government, or about $125 per month.

But what do they get for those payments?

Let’s start with 24-7 police protection. Law enforcement personnel not only are on the street every hour of every day looking for law-breakers, they’re also investigating crimes that have occurred and very often assisting neighboring police departments in their investigations. They also engage in crime-prevention activities such as Neighborhood Watch and similar programs with citizens to better prepare them for protecting themselves from a variety of possible offenses. And they engage in a number of special programs dealing with youth and counseling them away from drugs and gang activities. Finally, they visit lots of homes to help settle domestic squabbles before they get out of hand.

Then there’s the 24-7 services of the firefighters and paramedics. Within minutes of receiving a call, they’re at the doors of residents to keep them safe or to provide life-saving services and then transport them to medical centers when the need demands. Regularly I receive phone calls, notes, and e-mail messages from residents, thanking me for the fact that paramedics saved the lives of persons they love.

In addition, there are the various parks and recreation services that are available for residents to use and enjoy. In our town, we don’t have a separate park district with all the extra administrative costs that entails; instead, we have a parks department that oversees all those activities. And it’s financed through the regular property tax allocation the city receives.

In my community, we also have a full-service health department, admittedly something rare in most communities of our size. The nurses in that department provide home-visits to the residences of senior citizens and to the four senior centers in our town. They also provide immunizations for things such as the outbreak of influenza, and they provide – at no extra cost – state-mandated school physical examinations for the children of families who cannot afford them due to lack of health insurance or other financial problems. All that’s in addition to a number of wellness programs that are intended to help citizens avoid major illnesses.

Then there are the other programs, such as the building inspectors who make sure that dwelling structures in our municipality meet all the required codes and are safe places in which people may live. And the employees of our public works department who will go out in the middle of the night – no matter what the weather – to repair water main breaks, or sewer breaks, or to remove branches that are obstructing roadways due to storms, etc.

And there are other workers who make sure that various administrative tasks are done, or that businesses that wish to locate in our community are given the right information and guidance, or who assure long-range planning is done so everything operates the way it should day-in and day-out.

And what pays for all those round-the-clock services? An average of about $125 per month per residence in property taxes.

How does that compare with what you pay each month for gas and electric utility services? Or with what you pay for cable or dish television services? Or with what you pay for various home repair services? Or with how much you may for insurance coverage? Or how much you pay for automobile fuel and maintenance?

Dollar-for-dollar, service-for-service, nothing gives the average homeowner the return on his/her payment that local government provides. And yet what do people go to meetings to complain about? Is it gas prices? Is it insurance prices? Is it the price of consumer goods? No. It’s government!

Something is really, really wrong with this picture.

John A. Ostenburg is mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He is the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union. E-mail him at [email protected]. This article is from his blog The Outpost Observer, Copyright © 2009 John Ostenburg, used with permission.