Barrow County’s finances, like that of many governments, is a mess. But it’s time for the internal squabbling to stop and for local governments to realize their world has been turned upside down.
Since the recession hit in 2008, most local public officials have viewed the downturn as just another blip. Consequently, they were slow to react, thinking they would live off reserves for a year or so then everything would go back to the way it had been.
But they were wrong. This recession is a long-term downturn; declining and flat revenues are the “new normal.” The days of double-digit growth in government income are over, at least for the next decade.
Unfortunately, the slow reaction by local governments to the downturn led them to squander millions of reserve dollars in a misguided effort to maintain the status quo. Now they’re really under financial pressure. Barrow’s tax digest, for example, has gone down 14 percent over the last two years. If that’s not a wakeup call, nothing is.
The reality is that local officials should now be planning for how their governments will look over the next five years. The current panic of short-term thinking won’t work any longer.
What does that mean? It means that local governments are going to have to downsize in a major way. Programs are going to have to be abolished. Cuts in services will have to be made. Major capital expenses postponed.
The county government, especially, can’t just continue to live from month to month with its fingers crossed. It has to take action and plan ahead.
Labor is the major cost of government and so resizing government will by necessity affect a lot of people. But governments do not — should not — exist as a jobs program. Furloughs and layoffs may be necessary.
And in Barrow County, the generous corporate tax breaks for prospective industries that have been done in the past are going to have to end. Empty buildings that create no jobs and pay little in taxes are of no use.
Citizens, too, are going to have to adjust their thinking. The salad days of massive government programs are over. Fees for recreation and other similar voluntary programs are going to have to go up.
It’s time for all local governments to shift their focus away from just the here and now and begin thinking longer-term by shrinking in size and scope.
That won’t be easy. But the alternative is far worse.