WHOOPEEEE!!! NOW THAT THE RECESSION is officially over, we can all start going into debt again. That’s what it sounded like in the Village of Chatham, where the board plans to borrow a total of $2.9 million, more than the municipality has ever borrowed at one time before.
News like that gives editorial writers, politicians and all manner of instant financial experts an opportunity to bash the pointy-headed fools who tell us that the latest economic downturn actually ended more than a year ago. We can drag out the verbal pitchforks and rage against anyone who dares suggest that not all spending is bad. Finally, there’s somebody to blame.
The egghead economists at the private National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass., probably knew the abuse they were about to take when they announced the end to that what the mass media insist on calling the Great Recession (as if anybody knows where it fits in the history of economic crises). The country still has millions without work, and too many businesses remain hunkered down, hoping somebody else will assume all the risk associated with growth. Meanwhile, thoughtful economists remind anyone who’ll listen that it isn’t a matter of arguing whether the recession is over; it’s time to recognize that this recession hasn’t followed the historic pattern, and we’ve got to adjust our response to current realities.
What has this got to do with local governments like Chatham deciding to borrow? With property taxes crushing local taxpayers, it might seem like a terrible time to go deeper into debt. But rates are low – Chatham hopes to get a no-interest government loan — and the needs have to be addressed soon. To understand why, look at the broader picture.
If you’d rather not dwell on sewer systems like the one the village hopes to upgrade, or its big brother in Hudson, which the city is now replacing with help from the federal economic stimulus package, then how about a bridge near you.
Even before the interstate bridge in Minnesota crumbled, local engineers and politicians were fretting about the state of bridges here in Columbia County. Last year state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli issued a report that estimates the state will have $80 billion in “unmet local infrastructure needs” over the next 20 years. Among the items most in need of attention: one-third of 8,535 bridges around the state need serious work. Some of those bridges are next door.
State data show that 55% of the bridges in this county rank as “deficient” based on the Department of Transportation’s numerical ratings scale. A few of them have scores nearly as low as the one that caused the state to demolish a span over Lake Champlain. Yes, the state is repairing the Route 9G bridge north of Germantown, but that still leaves more than 130 deficient bridges in the county. A contractors group claims that this county has the highest percentage of deficient bridges in the state outside of New York City.
Not everything looks so gloomy. Unemployment, while double what the county has seen in past decades, is down ever so slightly over the previous months and compared to last year. The rate has dropped below 7% and stayed well under the state and national averages. And there is something reassuring about the sight of new big box stores rising at the Greenport Commons plaza, though they undoubtedly will suck commerce from smaller businesses and strain local infrastructure. Still, somebody thinks there’s money to be made here.
None of this means that happy days have returned to the local economy. But the people we elect to run government have a duty to pay attention to the needs of the future as well as the present. Borrowing to fix the roof so that what your home stays dry and your belonging usable makes sense. Likewise, fixing the public works that preserve health and safety is a task we ignore at our peril. We won’t have a community if we can’t trust the safety of our bridges or know that raw sewage won’t pollute the water we drink and the places our children play.
Maintaining our infrastructure is an expensive proposition, and the decisions to repair our crumbling public works require thoughtful scrutiny. But anyone who hides a lack of ideas behind a mask of anger, who suggests improvements will come cheap and easy or, worse, who advises ignoring what our eyes tell us is wrong – that person is part of the problem not the solution.