At yesterday’s public hearing regarding the City of Wichita budget, the attitude of Wichita’s public employee union became clear: more tax revenue is needed.
Speaking to the council, Harold Schlechtweg, business representative of Service Employees International Union Local 513 suggested that the city consider raising taxes by raising the mill levy (property taxes). “We don’t believe taxes are too high in the City of Wichita,” he said.
This illustrates a fundamental problem of government: in order for the employees in Schlechtweg’s union to be paid anything at all — much less to receive a raise in pay — the city must levy taxes. (The city collects some revenue in fees, but most revenue is taxes.)
Furthermore, if the city is to levy taxes in order to provide services such as public parks, the city must figure out how many parks to provide, where those parks should be located, and what features those parks should have.
Even a simple matter such as the level of parks maintenance is a difficult question. Presently the city is considering replacing all or most of the workers with contract workers by outsourcing the work to a private-sector contractor.
Schlechtweg, who represents parks workers through the union, expressed concerns with “[the] accountability of contractors, quality of work that can be expected, and whether contract labor can efficiently do all the work expected of city employees.”
He and other advocates for parks workers believe that the present workers provide services that contract workers will not. The claim is that the present workers provide, as I termed it yesterday, a gold-plated level of service to the people of Wichita.
The problem the city faces, as do all governments, is that it really has no idea how many parks (and related details of those parks) the people of Wichita would like, and it has no way to answer this question.
That’s because the decisions about parks are made in the realm of politics. The politicians and bureaucrats making the decisions aren’t spending their own money, except for the very small portion of their own taxes that go to the parks.
The people who take the time to get involved and testify before boards and commissions are a small group of enthusiasts. They’re quite happy for taxpayers across the city to pay for something they themselves make great use of, but the average taxpayer uses only infrequently.
The parks workers and their union, of course, depend on a high level of parks spending for the livelihoods.
This illustrates the nature of many government programs that I mentioned in yesterday’s hearing: Many government programs have a small number of beneficiaries, but the cost is dispersed across a large number of people. To the large number, it’s just a few cents here, a few dollars there. But to the small group that benefits, it’s a job or a nice park near their home with gold-plated maintenance.
If the small group — the special interest — works hard enough, they can get what they want. Many times no one else notices what’s going on.
So how can the city learn the number of parks (and details about these parks) that people really want? How does the city figure out how many McDonald’s restaurants or movie theaters are needed in Wichita? And what movies would these theaters show? The answer is that it doesn’t. It leaves decisions about these matters to markets.
The city could do this with its parks, too. It could let people and entrepreneurs decide how many parks are needed, where they should be, and what features the parks should have. Through the market process, we’d then know that we have the types of parks that people really want.
As government extends its reach into more areas of the economy, it’s getting harder to find examples where markets are free to work. The movie theater example above: there’s not really a free market for movie theaters in Wichita. The city council has decided to subsidize a movie theater in Old Town, thereby intervening and overriding the decision the marketplace made.