Friday, February 4, 2011

Editorial: Sometimes spending is good

With the headline writer providing this weeks 'duh' moment, the unnamed Courier editor argues in favor of investment for the public good, picking as examples certain investments that may benefit a few of us in the public.

The editor allows for the possibility that municipal spending on the swimming pool in PV or Prescott's pie-in-the-sky baseball park or former golf-course clubhouse. Notice a theme? The editor likes sports. Apparently serving the minority of the population that gets involved in these sports is enough a public good to justify general-revenue expenditures.

If the City were proposing an investment in solar energy generation or broadband infrastructure, which would benefit everyone pretty uniformly, would the editor be so enthusiastic? If we proposed using the general fund to extend the sewer system and eliminate the risks of urban septic tanks, which directly involve a small number of homes but build value for all, would the editor approve? Let's say I have my doubts.

The editor believes that Prescott sinks or floats on tourism. I think that's a mug's game. But even if more tourists were to show up based on these investments, how -- specifically, how -- would that benefit the majority, those of us who don't depend on retail sales of tickets, trinkets, bed and board? He might cite the sales-tax revenues as a minor percentage, but does he ever count the costs that the rest of us pay for them?

I've inspected that old clubhouse as a potential commercial property very carefully as part of a team with broad and pertinent experience. The City designed and built it badly, in a hurry and on the cheap, as an addition to the kitschy old log pro shop (since removed for cause) at our small-town nine-hole municipal course. It's a box with an outdated kitchen and a couple of bathrooms. The City's been trying and failing to find a use for it for years. Creative management and substantial investment might do more with it, but not anything like enough to justify the expense. If it had been in the right spot for the new clubhouse, course management would have torn it down without hesitation. The only investment that makes any sense for that location is the teardown cost.

(Aside: City staff talk enthusiastically about how attractive it is for wedding receptions. It's true that the view on one side is the golf course, and that's kind of nice. They never talk about the other side, which is a busy and noisy airport runway.)

I don't have a stake in what the PV school district spends, but I know that if Prescott High was asking to add a pool to its campus, I'd be quick to argue that swimming doesn't make anyone smarter or better suited for a job other than as a lifeguard. And like, PV, we already have a pool. I don't mind investing in kids, but I object firmly to diverting that investment to frivolous (but profitable, for a few) projects that do not serve the education mission.

The baseball park is the sparkliest boondoggle of the bunch, of course, made more so by our large and ongoing public investment in the baseball complex at Pioneer Park.

Need examples of success? How well has PV done with its flyblown fairgrounds and track? How about that bankrupt hockey arena? I'll concede the editor's idea that lots of people like sports, but he's missing that the vast majority like them best from their loungers, with a beer and chips.

Why does the editor feel exercised to stretch his credibility this way? Does he really lack the imaginative tools to see better ways to spend money that benefit us all? Or does he really just like his sports and believe that our taxes are the best way for him to get them?