HOPKINS: An effigy a day keeps taxpayer at bay

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The caller was angry, there was no doubting that. He is an anonymous taxpayer from North Tonawanda, and he’s not happy with what he believes is unnecessary spending by city government. I didn’t speak to him directly; we don’t get that chance when reviewing Sound Off.

Emotions such as sarcasm and anger — which drives 80 percent of the Sound Off callers by my estimation — don’t translate well in print. But, there was no mistaking this man’s emotion: he’s perturbed. For those of you who may have missed it, the Sound Off caller’s comments appeared in the Aug. 27 edition of the Tonawanda News. Here is a portion of it:

“Where does it say that the City of North Tonawanda, or any government for that matter, is required to entertain its citizens? Our taxes should go toward police, fire and roads. That’s it. My taxes should not go toward hockey rinks, skate parks, concerts, roller rinks or anything like that. Leave that to the private sector.”

My reaction? “Amen, brother!”

Taxes in New York state are ridiculously high and I, too, am fed up. I try to control what I can, which basically amounts to my refusal to live in a village where I would be double taxed. Apart from that, there’s not much that I, one New Yorker, can do to limit what I pay in taxes. From this position, though, I can offer a suggestion: cut public salaries at the local, state and federal levels. That’s what’s really hurting our wallets.

I’m sure there are many in the public sector who will burn a likeness of me in effigy for the following, but consider this September 2006 report from the Empire Center for Public Policy: there are roughly 1.3 million state and local government employees in the Empire state. Since the last “economic downturn” in 2000, more public jobs have been created in New York, even as billions of dollars were lost following 9/11.

“While New York’s private sector economy has yet to fully recover from its last downturn, state and local government employees are more numerous than ever, economically more secure, and generally better compensated than private sector workers,” the center reported.

In 2005, the average state and “local government” employee in Erie County earned $40,078 while those in the private sector earned $34,407. The numbers are similar in Niagara County: $37,011 for public employees; $32,339 in the private sector. Ouch. Throw in the benefits to public employees that were expanded when the economy was surging in the 1990s, and you have a double-edged sword slicing up the belly of the pig.

Elect the candidates willing to take on this challenge, instead of those who scream “you can’t” or inexplicably say they “don’t know how” to cut the budget. Those who say this are either unimaginative or are in the pockets of the public sector’s powerful lobbyists. It’s easier to determine the second part by simply examining the groups that endorse each candidate.

“Ask not what can your country do for you, but what can you do for your country,” John F. Kennedy once challenged Americans. That famous provocation has since been lost by members of his own party, and Republicans aren’t far behind.

As for the specific items mentioned by the caller, I agree that the public shouldn’t be funding unnecessary projects, but we must determine what’s in excess. There is always fat that can be trimmed from any budget, but there are other services worthy of our tax dollars. Libraries, for instance.

I have always believed that libraries are worth funding, if for no other reason than they are a great equalizer. They don’t discriminate. A millionaire can walk into a library and borrow a book just as easily as the kid earning minimum wage.

Of course, leave some things to the private sector, and you’ll likely price out a few people from the event. Sure, we could live without a recreation department, parks department and stipends to cultural not-for-profits, but quality of life would suffer. Some benefits must be measured by the dollars spent in local businesses by people attracted here by a concert, festival or park.

Yes, budgets must be cut. Just make sure it’s the fat and not a ligament.

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