Making Our City Slicker

While I’m a firm believer in the benefits of a formal education, I cannot discount the intellectual insights I’ve discovered by watching movies. Case in point, I’m a big fan of the wisdom bestowed by Jack Palance’s character, Curly, in the movie "City Slickers". In the movie, Curly suggests that the secret to life is, “one thing, just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean…” well, it don’t mean nothing. It took Billy Crystal’s character most of the movie to figure out what his “one thing” was, but once he did, everything else fell into place for him. And, while I realize that it wasn’t a true story, I believe that the premise is absolutely valid, and applicable to more than just individual life.

With the deadline for applications coming shortly, Lakewood will soon know who will be stepping up to run for the various elected positions this fall. And as a part of that process we will, no doubt, begin hearing a long litany of issues that each candidate will vow to address. But don’t be fooled by whimsical speeches or grandiose rhetoric. If the candidate is for real, then they’ve thought long and hard about the problems facing our city. And if they’re serious about solving them, they should each have an opinion as to what that “one thing” is that will help us turn the corner.

When you talk to family and friends, you’ll hear all sorts of different priorities like better schools, safer neighborhoods, and cleaner streets. You’ll hear people raise concerns about unstable housing values, vacancies in retail space, and dwindling public services. But to me, those are all secondary to that “one thing”: fiscal security. When I look at Lakewood, I see only one issue, and if I get the chance to talk to a candidate, I will have only one question: What do you propose to do to make the City of Lakewood financially sound, economically secure, and fiscally independent?

I have a confession to make: while attending one of the recent community meetings hosted by the Lakewood Observer, I was actually a little embarrassed by how little I knew about local politics and problems. When asked my opinion about potential candidates and possible policies, I felt wholly unprepared and somewhat unqualified to answer. With the breadth and depth of the issues plaguing us on a national scale, I’ve almost had blinders on when it comes to my own backyard.

So, to rectify my ignorance, I started looking into our own situation. And while I may have concerns about some of the specific policies I found, my attention continued to focus on one specific column of the 2011 budget. Under the heading of “Revenues by Type” is a seemingly innocent and somewhat non-descript entry called “Intergovernmental”. In a nutshell, it’s the amount of money Lakewood receives from state and federal programs to help pay for local projects and purchases.

At first, I quickly dismissed the entry, since, when push comes to shove, it’s all tax money. But something inside me just wasn’t satisfied. And, the more I thought about it, the worse I felt. My question was this: Am I comfortable depending on an outside source for just shy of $15 million a year, a sum that equals more than 15% of our overall budget? With what I know about the looming state and federal budget problems, I couldn’t help but answer “no”. There’s simply no way the federal government can keep providing funding at their current levels, and the state budget is no better off. The cuts will be coming and we’d be fools not to prepare for it.

Currently, we use this funding to help pay for vehicles, roads, services and personnel. But if the funding dries up, it doesn’t necessarily mean that our needs do too, in which case that money will have to come from somewhere else. And that’s why I think that closing that particular line item is our “one thing”. If we can somehow tackle this issue before it becomes a problem, we’ll be sitting in the catbird seat.

Businesses won’t fill store fronts in a city that doesn’t offer fiscal stability. Companies like American Greetings don’t just want lower taxes, they want steady rates. They’re looking for some semblance of reassurance that they won’t have to worry about a constantly changing business environment. A balanced budget is nice, but imagine the benefits of a location in a city that isn’t subject to the schizophrenic ups and downs of state and federal finances.

While the housing bubble inflated the price of homes in most of the outer suburbs, the resulting bust brought most people back down to earth. No longer will people look to invest in artificially expensive property. The smart ones will buy and renovate in the neighborhoods with a solid infrastructure, a sound tax base and a responsible city government. As gas prices and utilities continue to rise and the cookie cutter “McMansions” start to show their age and frailty, a city like Lakewood, if it could become financially independent, would offer something that no other neighborhood could: relatively secured, long-term value.

Think of the ramifications to public services and schools if we knew our economy was on sound footing. If you’re a police officer or teacher, would you want to work in a district with vulnerable promises or one with protected benefits? If I were a union leader, I’d feel much better negotiating contracts based on known revenue rather than how the lottery did that year.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t use the funds made available to us, but there is a huge difference between utilizing funds and being dependent upon them. And, I think that there is no other issue of greater importance to the City of Lakewood than securing the prosperity that financial freedom can provide.

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Volume 7, Issue 11, Posted 2:53 PM, 06.01.2011