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Bossier City has lost right to make citizens pay for its mistakes

Bossier City is preparing, after a month of controversy, to wrap up its budget. The crux of the argument has come over city government asking the citizenry to pay more for through higher Emergency Medical Services and waste collection fees. The city has tried to argue that the roughly 5 percent of the budget paid for out of monies that have come from gambling revenues needs to be eliminated, and raising the fees is the easiest way to do it.

To analyze this, we need to understand the philosophical justifications for fee increases versus using gambling revenues and the interest thereof. Recognize that neither fee can be tied directly to any discrete amount of service to any particular individual. The waste collection hike is said to handle costs of street cleaning and grass cutting of which neither is related to the individual pieces of property whose owners pay for waste collection of all kinds (even if they don’t use those services). The EMS charge is a kind of mandatory insurance which again bears no relationship to the actual users of it and the amount of it they use.

Worse, at least in the case of EMS, the existing revenue structure (fees compelled from Bossier City property owners and charges to those actual users outside the city limits) at $4 million a year pretty much satisfies all current EMS direct and indirect costs. (In fact, if the city is dead set on hiking fees, why not do it for out-of-town users instead?) In other words, in both cases, there’s hardly any more relationship between Bossier City citizens’ usage of units of these services and what they pay for them than there is with, say, sales tax revenues and public safety expenditures allocated to each citizen.

So, why should, say, EMS fee hikes have any more moral justification to be used for, say, steep increases that the city has been forced to meet in retirement contributions and insurance premiums to which they are essentially unrelated than would any other source of revenue, including gambling revenues and the interest thereof. Indeed, you have a better moral argument for using the gambling monies because they are revenues being generated already without having to take more resources from the citizenry as the fee hikes would.

The city argues that the instability of gambling revenues makes it a riskier use of them for continuing operations, and rightly so. But note that the city is sitting on $30 million in such revenues (which it can’t spend) and almost half again of that comes in every year (which it can and does spend), which means on an annual basis the account’s balance is the equivalent of one-third of the city’s annual budget. (Contrast this with the state’s version, which makes up about one-sixtieth of its budget.)

That’s a lot of the public’s money to sit on, instead of returning it to them in lower taxes etc. or in using it to provide more services. You can justify sitting on it only if by hanging onto it those same actions are accomplished.

Sadly, Bossier City did not. Had the city not blown $78 million on an arena which doesn’t make money and on a parking garage gift to developers who easily could have paid for it attached to an enterprise that shows no signs yet of expanding the economic pie, this plus the $30 million would have thrown off enough interest income every year (at least $6 million a year) so that it would pay totally for the deficit spending that mostly is plugged now by annual gambling revenues.

In short, either the city should have accumulated a huge pot of money the interest of which could help smooth out the ups and downs in gambling revenues, or it should use some of those revenues to reduce the burdens on resources Bossier City residents must cough up to the city – after all it is their money, not the city’s. The one thing it could not do was to spend all this money on dubious “economic development” schemes which might bring a lot of attention and pride to big fishes in small ponds but do not bring near the return on investment that investing it or “rebating” it would have had.

But, in fact, that is what Bossier City did and, after its unwise use of the citizenry’s money, it has the audacity to ask the citizenry to make up for the consequences of that misuse. If unable to cut expenses, as undesirable as it might be to use gambling revenues for continuing operations, at least for this year it is more morally correct to do so than to penalize the citizenry for mistakes in governance. Ill-conceived use of that money forfeits any right for Bossier City politicians to take more from the people.

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