Sgouros’s Answer Is Big Government
Tom Sgouros likes the idea of centralized government. (He also knows just how to run it, it seems, at least better than a growing list of his fellow citizens, including our “absurd[ly] scolding” governor and the “blind squirrels” who advocate for consolidation.) In a recent column with the aim of supporting that affinity, he attempts to move his cups fast enough that readers won’t notice a critical omission and a hint of his end goal.
His argument is that diffuse government, financed with local taxes, is a financial trap in a mobile society:
When people leave a town, it takes a while to cut the expenses of the services they used, if it’s possible at all. If you have a hundred kids in a fifth grade, that’s four classrooms. If ten of those children move away, that’s still four classrooms, but with less money to pay for them. If a fire station is established to deal with a neighborhood of 500 houses, a town can’t close it just because 50 of those houses are now vacant. A shrinking town doesn’t need a smaller police department. If anything, experience shows it needs a larger one.
The opposite side of the coin is just as telling. A family with two school-age children moving to some rural town will likely cost that town as much as $30,000 in services, but provide only a fraction of that in taxes. New construction often requires new traffic lights, new water lines, new sewer lines and more. These expenses are never covered by the new tax revenue, and seldom even covered by occasionally imposed “developer impact fees.”
He touts a study of the school district in Fairfax County, Virginia, that he’s performed, but he neglects to offer any evidence that Fairfax is worthy of emulation or to explain what about that system would benefit Rhode Island. Sgouros points out that the cost of government of Jamestown (for example) has corresponded with a growth in population:
Town payrolls have gone up because towns have grown, and because of requirements imposed on them. Jamestown has twice as many year-round residents, and many more summer houses, than it did back in the days of two police cars. Rhode Island has about the same number of people as a generation ago, but our little towns are bigger and our cities are smaller. We have spread out across the landscape, and that has real consequences.
But do you see the spending of the cities contracting, or their leaders asking the state for less money? To quote Sgouros’s arrogant tone: “Yeah, neither do I.”
His hypothetical shrinking town is still going require four classrooms, and the rural town is still going to face the necessity of expanding its services; the former is still going to have to keep up unneeded water and sewer lines, and the latter is still going to have to install new ones. The only difference is that the ever-expanding cost of government — notably including the cost of Sgouros’s union friends — would occur a little bit farther beyond the political reach of regular citizens.
Actually, that’s not the only difference. It would also be a little bit easier for those with an affection for central planning and top-down dictation to implement their preferences. Writes Sgouros:
Want to know what else Jamestown has that it didn’t have a generation ago? Special-ed students who used to be wards of the state, attending the Ladd School. Having special-needs children educated with other children is a good thing, but it’s not free. When the state closed Ladd, do you remember how the state gave that money to cities and towns for special education? Yeah, neither do I.
What else didn’t Jamestown have back then? Clean-water mandates imposed by the EPA, comprehensive planning laws, bus monitors on school buses, and yes, minimum staffing levels in public safety departments, imposed by the state. Here’s the thing, though: all of these requirements were imposed for a good reason. Clean water, good planning, and public safety are all important.
One wonders what else Mr. Sgouros believes should be “imposed for a good reason.” Centralized government is most successfully a mechanism for enabling a class of people who believe that they’re smarter and more moral than the rest of us to tell their fellow citizens how to live. In the short term, it also serves to obfuscate the unsustainable costs of their policies.