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Budget cuts highlight fundamental questions

The Bell Curve

July 07, 2010|By Joseph N. Bell

Newport Beach mayor Keith Curry went public last week with a roseate picture of how his city has created and abided by a 15-point sustainable plan that is delivering "a leaner, more efficient, more effective and better-managed" city government. As a result, he tells us, the City Council has turned a projected $8 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2009-10 into a balanced budget without tapping into operating reserves.

While this merits an "attaway, Newport Beach," it also raises an obvious question that might well be asked across the country: If this could be accomplished so readily under the stress of economic necessity, why wasn't it done before the crisis required it?

Which leads to another fundamental observation that needs to be addressed: Either the city has been miserably mismanaged or the cuts in budget are depriving us of essential, maybe even dangerously low, levels of public service. Or both.

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Only the elimination of 37 full-time city employees suggested a harder look at what was lost in the mayor's presentation. That and a much more detailed examination of the previous management's handling of such personnel problems as the infighting in the police department — which cost the city more than $1 million in one case alone — and tougher exploration of the background of new hires at every level — the city attorney comes to mind — which cost the city considerable embarrassment. Both touch on issues, it seems to me, that should of interest to a local citizens commission set up to improve city services.

It is to Curry's credit that he didn't raise the "No More Taxes" flag before which virtually all politicians at every level genuflect these days. The only reference to taxes in his report was an offhand comment that "we are also working to expand our local tax base and economy." This is a civilized and rational substitute for "never, never ever, under any circumstance, will I support or initiate any effort to raise taxes."

I don't find this sort of absolution even marginally comforting. It's rather like sending a warrior into combat after binding his right arm to his side.

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