Sunday, December 12, 2010

You Get What You Pay For

During the recent media coverage of Derek Jeter’s contract negotiations, I heard it reported that George Steinbrenner never wanted any incentives built into his players’ deals, no extra money, say, for winning the league most valuable player award. The Boss reasoned, after all, that he was paying top dollar for top performances. He expected nothing less than an MVP effort from everyone, so why pay extra?

That approach to fiscal management comes to mind because a trend seems to be surfacing in municipalities across the country. To bulk up budgets stretched too thin by stingy politicos, police and fire departments are charging for services that until now seemed to be included in your tax bill, services such as showing up at the scene of an accident. Now, some localities are charging for an appearance by rescue crews, even if you weren’t at fault. Here’s an article for perspective:

I’m as sympathetic as the next guy to the financial plight of fire and police departments. I believe these first responders deserve all the pay, and more, that we can give them for being willing to risk their lives every day for us ordinary citizens. But I have a real problem with administrators trying to balance budgets on a pay-as-you-go basis. I worry about setting a precedent. I mean, if civil servants desire more money each time their services are required, how soon will they draw up a menu with a sliding scale of charges?:

$50 to retrieve a cat from a tree or roof; $100 to respond to a house alarm, $200 if it’s a false alarm; $300 to search for a missing child, $500 nuisance charge if the child shows up at the local mall.

And why stop with the fire and police departments? Sanitation workers could impose a surcharge for picking up trash after a holiday. Say, $50 for Thanksgiving, New Year’s and Easter, but $100 for Christmas because of the extra wrapping paper and boxes. Highway departments could charge for plowing after every snowfall, the rate determined by how many inches came down. Teachers could demand a bonus for above average test grades and graduation rates; city hospital workers could exact payments if they cure patients, or at least send them home alive.

The budget-balancing possibilities are endless.

Of course, there might be a silver lining to this pay-for-service plan. To attract new residents and businesses, municipalities might begin advertising their rates as lower than nearby communities. Price wars might result. They might get so intense that police and fire department services might be offered free of extra charge, just like they’re supposed to be.