So you think community responsibility is easy?

[The author is a retired attorney, who volunteered to participate in a citizen audit of the operations and finances of Traverse City in October 2007.  The committee members spent hundreds of hours interviewing officials, citizens and reviewing records.  Its report will be submitted to the TC Commission in early February.]

The citizen members of the Traverse City COFAC are in the process of learning a hard lesson in democracy: Government size and cost reduction are wonderful goals in the abstract, but every public dollar spent has its own (and very resistant) constituency. Readers of and the hardy handful of public officials who actually try to balance budgets have long been aware of this.  But most of those who stayed the course for 14 month had a more innocent view.  They included housewives, realtors, bankers, attorneys, developers, retirees, entertainment managers, businesspeople and community volunteers. None were holding elective or appointive positions.  In fact, that was the idea, a review by citizen taxpayers not intimately involved or invested in the status quo.

Their recommendations, while formally to be presented to the TC Commission in a couple of weeks, have been public as voted on  However, the absence of actual media coverage for past months will make the unveiling of the final report appear as sudden and surprising. In many ways the status quo will be challenged if there is political will to implement.

Finding that Traverse City was spending 100% more than similar cities for fire fighting, COFAC will recommend the city spend “only” 50% more than similar cities. Finding that city taxpayers are assessed over $700,000 in county taxes earmarked for sheriff road patrol (and receive ZERO road patrol), COFAC believes the county should either provide road patrol in the city or rebate to city government the unearned taxpayer share. Other apple-cart upsetting recommendations include asking commissioners to hire no new employees until all pension plans are changed from defined benefit to defined contribution; that the city parking system be contracted out to the private sector; and that services used by 25% city residents and 75% non-city residents no longer be funded 100% by the 14,500 city resident taxpayers found to be supporting amenities enjoyed by over 130,000 in the metropolitan area. A study of a city income tax, found UNANIMOUS opposition from the bipartisan membership.

Members having labored for over a year, without remuneration, understandably will look to their community for gratitude.  But they should not look too hard.  Local media have finally dipped their toe into COFAC water, and began publicizing one of the dozens of recommendation.  The group recommended sale of a very expensive piece of land on Grand Traverse Bay, which contains a very outdated Senior Center.  Objectives included maximizing value for the tax rolls, proceeds to be used for a better Senior Center at another location, and addressing the funding disparities (only 25% of the users are from the City) when the new Senior Center is developed.

Ah, let the firestorm begin! The author had been asked by the membership to act as spokesman as issues reach public awareness, and was thus quoted in the local media explaining the policy preference. The ink was barely dry on the local paper when the telephones (home, office, cell) began to ring. The senior citizen consensus: “We have it, we like it, we want it where it is, don’t change a thing.”  At the risk of being a generational traitor, let me quote from a powerful article by economist Robert Samuelson in the current Newsweek: “The old are well organized and highly protective of promised benefits, while the young are politically passionate and unfocused. For the young, the odds look lousy.”

For those of our COFAC members who were naifs, believing that hard work and fiscal responsibility would be respected, let the lesson in realpolitik begin. If we now think granny is a tough cookie, wait till the bargaining units roll up their sleeves!