For its entire existence, this country’s leaders have wrestled with the slippery issue of power and how much is too much for government at all levels. In times like these, as tax revenues disappear while the free market struggles, the issue takes on even more significance.
So when Haywood officials said last week that their decision to privatize trash and recycling services was more about fiscal reality than philosophy of government, there was no reason to doubt them. Still, this move toward getting out of the trash business presents an interesting opportunity for a discussion about local government and its responsibilities.
Haywood commissioners made some waves last week when they voted to stop providing a service that was costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead of operating their own convenience centers and a “pick” line at the county-owned recycling center, commissioners voted to privatize many solid waste services. The decision will save nearly $500,000 per year. Another switch that’s liable to happen within a year — the closing of the transfer station in Clyde — could save an additional million dollars a year. A task force studying the cost of these services also says hiring a firm to manage the entire landfill would provide large cost savings.
All that sounds great from a budgetary perspective, and one would think there would be widespread praise for the savings. Unfortunately for the Haywood commissioners, that’s not what happened. As always, people’s lives are in the crosshairs when a decision of this magnitude ripples through the system.
More than 15 county employees will lose their jobs as the county shuts down a line of service that has been expanding for the last couple of decades. Leaders of the municipalities are upset and most private trash haulers don’t seem happy.
So what’s next for Haywood and other counties struggling with declining tax revenues while the cost of everything else — gas, health care, wages, to name a few — continues to rise? Perhaps the sheriff’s department or the health department will go private. Government at all levels is better off by privatizing and outsourcing services that the private sector can provide, right?
“I think it’s function-specific,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “There are things that only government can do that cannot be logically privatized: law enforcement, emergency services, education.”
Swanger’s right, but there is some irony in the fact that this move by Haywood comes at the same time the burgeoning Tea Party movement is criticizing government spending at all levels, and a local group has been riding Haywood commissioners incessantly. Let’s be clear that the hectoring by these government critics has nothing to do with the decision in Haywood. Still, there’s little doubt that the rise to power of the Tea Party is related to the economic crisis and government spending, which becomes an easy target when times are this tough. More than ever, there is a clamoring to cut costs and keep taxes low.
I’m not one of those who believe too much government is necessarily a bad thing. There are certainly inefficiencies in government regulations and bureaucracies, but the oil fouling the Gulf of Mexico right now points to real and ongoing need for oversight of certain businesses. The vital services that government provides to citizens are a reflection of our fundamental values as a society, whether it’s health care for the poor and elderly, or EPA regulators to keep an eye on industrial polluters. In many cases the only entity that can step in and provide these services is government, and that’s the way it ought to be.
The question of how far government’s hand should reach into our lives will never be settled outright. From our local courthouses and town halls to Raleigh (where a privatization of mental health care a few years ago has left us with a broken system) and up to D.C. (where many question using tax money to bail out banks and automakers), it’s a fundamental issue our founding fathers left unsettled.
These are the same philosophic issues that pitted Thomas Jefferson and his anti-government, agrarian vision against the Federalist Alexander Hamilton and his pro-business, strong central government beliefs. This was the central controversy at the time the republic was formed, and it still bedevils our government at every level.
I suspect that in the next few years we’ll see more attempts by local governments to divest or privatize services. It will be up to voters to decide whether that’s good or bad. Haywood commissioners can say this is about the budget and not philosophy, but it’s hard to see the difference from inside the voting booth.