Who should sacrifice?

IT WILL TAKE SACRIFICES to cut our heavy tax burden. But as anyone in politics will tell you, whenever people insist they know what programs government should cut first, you can be sure it won’t be anything that inconveniences them.

Federal, state and local officials talk about consolidating government activities to reduce duplication of services, and some recent steps taken here suggest that this approach might benefit taxpayers. A couple of years ago, for example, the state made a hefty contribution toward new county snowplows, and the county now plows some state roads in a deal that saves money on equipment and labor.

But when consolidation isn’t possible, cuts or taxes are the remaining options. That’s what Copake faces as it wrestles with whether to keep its part-time Police Department or rely instead on deputy sheriffs and state troopers for protection. Some people believe local police provide an irreplaceable service; others say they’re a luxury taxpayers can no longer afford. The town may not have much of a choice; it already has a huge deficit and, unless the economy bounces back lickety-split, a larger budget hole looms next year.

The Chatham School District is another case in point. For years it operated two bus runs each morning and afternoon. Buses picked up high school and middle school students first then went back for elementary school kids. But the huge jump in fuel prices last year caused all districts to re-evaluate their bus costs, and Chatham found that some of its buses ran with only a few seats filled, an inefficiency it could no longer ask taxpayers to bear.

At first, some parents expressed misgivings about combining the older kids with the little ones. But no one could deny the savings, and under the direction of the previous superintendent, the board adopted the plan as part of the budget.

The new plan calls for full buses, so the district has also adopted a new policy that no longer guarantees students may change buses according to their parents’ needs. That’s when the real impact of the plan hit home.

Some parents who share custody of kids relied on the district’s flexible bus policy to ensure that their children moved easily and safely between the homes of two custodial families–mom put the kid on the bus in the morning at one bus stop, and dad (or grandma or the babysitter) was there when the child got off a different bus at a different home in the afternoon. The old system also helped parents who both worked. Now that service may be gone.

A few of the folks who turned out at a school board meeting this week felt like they’d been singled out to take a hit just because they don’t fit the district’s one-size-fits-all bus policy. They have a point–the district has withdrawn a service that improved their lives. But whether the new policy treats them unfairly depends on how far the public wants the district’s responsibility to extend beyond the mandate to educate all children. It gets back to that basic debate over whether a government function–in this case flexible busing–constitutes an essential service or an expendable luxury.

In Chatham’s case, the Board of Education has an obligation to the district as a whole to stay with the new policy for the school year. That’s the only way that taxpayers will know whether the plan really does yield the savings the board anticipates. But the administration and the board should also live up to their pledge to tweak the policy to address the need, assuming the budget allows it.

Taxpayers must keep the pressure on schools, villages, towns and the county to find ways of operating more efficiently. But there’s a danger in assuming that local governments can fix all the problems that confront them. Consider the cost of health insurance, which increases at double digit rates as co-pays rise, insurance companies weasel out of coverage and the overall health of Americans slips compared to other advanced countries.

Like the economy, these are national issues that require federal solutions. And until Washington provides fair and rational alternatives to enormously wasteful problems like the runaway U.S. health insurance industry, local governments will have little choice but to sacrifice essential services, while our tax dollars subsidize companies that care nothing at all about what we’ve lost.

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