Saturday, July 23, 2011

More on California's "Washington Monument Syndrome"

Over at the Orange County Register, Steven Greenhut writes about something that's been bugging us all week: the determination of California governments at all levels to make smaller budgets as painful as possible for citizens, as a way of extorting higher taxes out of us in the future. This is popularly known as the "Washington Monument Syndrome". When the government runs out of money, it doesn't cut graft, redundant bureaucracy, duplicative public services, or programs that few citizens notice; it closes down things like the Washington Monument, in the hopes that people will complain and clamor for higher taxes. In today's California, the Washington Monument comes in the form of school districts, universities, courts, and city governments. And as Greenhut reminds us, when the government in question is a broke city, sometimes the Washington Monument is public safety.

Greenhut tells us the story of a reporter and her son being attacked by muggers in broad daylight in downtown Sacramento last year. The Sacramento police never responded to their 911 call, nor to their request to file a police report. This reminded us of the scene in downtown San Jose in early June, when police failed to respond to what can only be described as a gang riot outside a McDonald's a block from the San Jose State campus. It also reminded us of the disgraceful occurrence in Alameda on Memorial Day, where police and firefighters refused to save a man from drowning, and the fire chief claimed (dishonestly) that budget cuts were responsible for the department's inability to conduct a water rescue. Greenhut also notes that the city of Oakland, facing budget cuts in 2010, released a list of crimes that the police department would no longer respond to, including grand theft, burglary, and car accidents. We're also reminded, of course, that budget cuts aren't preventing law enforcement from devoting considerable time to issuing revenue-generating tickets, as anyone who's recently gotten ticketed for offenses like jaywalking or bicycling without a helmet could tell you. And the Modesto Bee reported in March that the CHP has ratcheted up its own ticketing efforts. What's more, the cries of poverty seldom mention that police and fire services consume a very large percentage of the budgets of many of our least solvent cities (Stockton, San Jose, and Sacramento come to mind), or that many cities are being bankrupted by the cost of paying pensions to these workers.

Whenever it comes time to renegotiate contracts, public safety workers are invariably quick to play the "hero" card. And we're fine with that, provided that they're actually willing to do "hero" work. As this piece reminds us, however, the "Washington Monument Syndrome" in California is making that less and less the case.

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