Opinion

Shipwrecks Part 2: Distress Signals

Garry Gamble

For years, born out of fear and superstition, many sailors and ships avoided the area where the RMS Titanic went down. After all, there is something ominous about revisiting tragedy; especially, after 74 dark and silent years of sitting very noble and upright on the bottom of the ocean floor.

The world awoke April 15, 1912 to the realization that knowing what lies below can be more destructive than what is on top.

The evidence of opulence

Over 48,000 tons of steel plowed westward towards a rogue iceberg, conceivably 10 times the mass of Titanic. Despite several icepack warnings the Titanic forged steadily ahead, speed unabated, a white wave of foam curling around her proud bow. It could be said that her fate was written into her plans, even to the extent of creating illusion – only three of the four iconic smokestacks actually worked, the fourth was intended to make the ship look more impressive. Remember, “Build them at whatever cost.”

The evidence of negligence

Twenty-one ice warnings had been received between April 11 and the 14th. Passengers should have at least expected cautious and prudent navigation. But it was not to be. As the tragic experience of the Titanic has taught us, undisciplined determination often leads to disaster.

For those who managed to board lifeboats, few understood the Titanic was actually sinking. Even as they sat transfixed, adrift on the icy waters, moments before her five-minute journey to the distant seabed.

As we stand by and watch the county budget process, how many are actually aware that the speed at which commissioners are escalating county budgets has the potential to sink us?

As Titanic embraced the sharp, strong and jagged crust of the berg, it was the weight of the incoming water that forced her bow further into the ocean, until it finally brought her to the point where she could no longer stay afloat. That Titanic would founder was a mathematical certainty. The only question was when? Very much like fiscal imbalance in government, when there exists a mismatch in the revenue powers and expenditure responsibilities of a government . . . she sinks.

The main drivers in most county budgets are human services, labor costs and benefits. And while local government always wants to talk about the positive impact they have, they are reluctant to talk about costs. They hope costs will sort of “fly under the radar.”

For those who showed up at last year’s Truth in Taxation meeting —and there were a number of you—you heard the scores of pleas from fellow taxpayers who urged commissioners to slow down the spending!

What isn’t being addressed in the heavily “massaged” narrative coming from the county administrator and commissioners, is any evidence of reducing the “full-speed ahead” pattern of this board. Applying the metaphor of the Titanic, whoever is standing at the helm will direct the ship.

The evidence of arrogance

It is purported, by those in charge, that how we got here is due to past boards borrowing from reserve accounts. As the county administrator couches it, “ . . . had there been incremental increases or realistic levies without spending down fund balances starting 10 years ago, we wouldn’t be in a perpetually unbalanced budget position and we could’ve had several million dollars in the bank.”

Ask taxpayers if they’ve had to borrow from their reserves, cash in their IRAs or retirement accounts, go without . . . just to keep their families above the water line?

In a September 23, 2015 article written by TIME’s Money Magazine journalist Dan Kadlec, “Why Millions of Americans are Raiding Their Retirement Savings,” research shows some “30 million Americans in the last 12 months tapped retirement savings to pay for an unexpected expense.”

And from a December 23, 2015 article in Market Watch, written by personal finance editor Quentin Fottrell, “Approximately 62 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings accounts and 21 percent don’t even have a savings account.”

I would ask, “How is it that the county, who, according to County Auditor-Treasurer Braidy Powers, has in excess of 75 percent in its reserve account, should continue to confiscate taxpayer savings?”

One unnamed commissioner, questioned during a recent budget discussion, “Who and where are these people who can’t afford it?” Well, I can tell you they aren’t the passengers sitting in deck chairs; they most likely are the greater majority of passengers located in Second Class or those who can only afford to travel Third Class—those in “steerage” on the Titanic— those in Cook County who are on fixed incomes and are struggling to “stay afloat.”

At the rate of speed at which the county is spending money, i.e., “Whatever it takes,” we will not be able to launch enough lifeboats to save those folks. It is troublesome, if you watch the June 20th Committee of the Whole video (available on the county’s website) to hear commissioners advocating for increased spending with the knowledge that there are always lifeboats for those who find themselves drowning under the financial strain of ever-burgeoning county budgets.

During last year’s budget process, we were assured by the county’s administrator that if we just accepted the 19.9 percent proposed levy for 2017 we would find smooth sailing at 4.3 percent into the future. Now we are being told if we accept three years of double-digit levies we will sail into the sunset at a “new normal” of 5-7 percent.

Sounds at best, presumptuous; more likely, arrogant.

Holding all else equal, counties with higher spending will need to have higher property tax rates. When you can’t say, “No,” it’s a mathematical certainty. Spending is often higher in counties with greater revenue capacity since counties with larger tax bases can raise more revenue without needing higher tax rates. We don’t have that luxury.

While those wearing the golden oak leaf embellishments on the bills of their hats don’t like to hear this, Cook County consistently maintains the dubious distinction of asking its citizens to pay more per capita in support of their local government than any other county in the state.

The evidence of ignorance

In an age when counties are forced to do more with less, while still providing quality services and maintaining low property tax burdens, Cook County stands out as a government asking a lot more of its citizens than they can support. It’s not sustainable (to use the ad nauseam in vogue buzzword).

Gregory P. Smith, founder and president of Chart Your Course International Inc., helps organizations navigate through increasing rates of change. Mr. Smith suggests, “What lies below is more destructive than what is on top.” Smith notes, “The greatest dangers lie unseen below the surface. That night in 1912 the water was smooth like glass—and deceptively dangerous. The iceberg lurked below. Like steel fangs, it tore at the rivets along 300 feet of the Titanic’s hull. Those below, the crew and steerage, felt and saw the damage first. Like a gasping breath, the steam billowed above as chaos reigned below. Then and now, those who know what’s wrong with your ‘ship’ are those below decks. Consider asking them for their ideas and suggestions before catastrophe strikes.”

Former Cook County Commissioner Garry Gamble is writing this ongoing column about the various ways government works.


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