Dave Helling

Police vs. golf courses: Budget disputes are par for the course

Updated: 2014-02-13T23:41:25Z

By DAVE HELLING

The Kansas City Star

The folks at the conservative Show-Me Institute think tank in St. Louis are out with a study asking if more public services might be turned over to private companies to save taxpayer money and improve results.

The study is interesting, evenhanded and worth a read. While it has a point of view — it’s not very fond of government — it’s pretty clear-eyed about the mixed record of service privatization in the state.

Kansas City saves money with some private trash removal, for example, and private operation of the animal shelter is cheaper. But Branson’s private airport is a financial nightmare, and prison privatization is “deeply troubling.”

But the report’s this-and-that analysis, compelling as it is, isn’t what caught my eye. Instead it’s this sentence early in the study: “If you take the money saved from golf courses and spend it on police,” the author writes, “the city is going to be better off.”

The report offers no evidence to support that claim. And it can’t, of course, because it isn’t true.

Let’s say your community eliminated all of its public golf courses tomorrow and hired more police to be “better off.” Why would you stop there? You could stop paying for public parks and be even better off. And swimming pools. Baseball diamonds. Libraries. Art museums.

And more: End the public health service. Mass transit. Road repair. The fire service. Schools. Collect taxes for one reason and one reason only: more police.

Well, it would be a lot safer. It would also turn your city into East Berlin.

The converse, of course, is equally true. A city with good golf but no police wouldn’t be a very nice place to live either.

As in all things, the answer is balance — creating communities that are safe, convenient and pleasant. The central challenge for all government, always, is the unending search for the proper blend of public and private responsibilities at a cost taxpayers are willing to bear.

And Show-Me knows this because its own study shows the wildly different ways Missouri taxpayers buy things. Some cities own the water department, some don’t. A few run their swimming pools, while others let private operators change the chlorine. Some cities pay for ambulances, some don’t.

Government is just the word we use for how we buy things together. We fight like crazy over what we buy — you want a streetcar, I want streetlights — and we argue over who pays the cost, and how.

But communities of many people, unlike the folks at Show-Me perhaps, understand there are public goods beyond safety. We need the police, and we need golf courses too.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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