There is gnashing of teeth in Mt. Lebanon over whether all of our Commissioners pay appropriate homage to the true spirit of the town: The idea that nothing is too good or too expensive for our children's welfare. Precisely, as Commissioner Dan Miller writes, the question is whether one or more unnamed Commissioners agrees that pools and playing fields are "essential" to the community, when the question of more investment is called.
On that question, it may be the case that the comment and its implications can be understood in different ways. If Raja is the Commissioner-to-be-named-later, then his explanation of the comment is plausible
. Our kids and the town's spirit are intact; it's our budget that can't afford the extra cost.
Looking at the mini-brouhaha in this narrow light means that we can continue avoid talking seriously about some of the more challenging tradeoffs implicated in the current budget round. Mt. Lebanon developed its "no expense is too great for the well-being of its pampered citizens" reputation in an era of apparently unlimited resources -- including ever-expanding access to bond markets. When the budget gets better, things will be well again.
Look again and look more broadly. The party is over. Do not take Raja's explanation to mean that we can build new fields when the flow of money resumes. Take Raja's explanation to mean that the era of serious tradeoffs has begun. It is likely that never again will this town -- or this country -- have all of the resources that it needs in order to do and to buy all of the things that it wants. We cannot have the best of everything for ourselves or for our children.
To make this concrete, and for discussion, and not as a recommendation, consider some very specific and very difficult questions:
Does Mt. Lebanon need all of the full-time police officers and all of the full-time firefighters that we currently employ?
I love our public safety departments. They are, in my experience, great people, well-trained, dedicated, and responsive to a fault. They are also very, very expensive. (There is a standing joke in my neighborhood in which folks stand around wondering when the Mt. Lebanon Police Department will buy a helicopter.) Not long ago I poked around the Internet to see whether there are any established standards for measuring the size of public safety departments relative to community population. There are. It turns out that Mt. Lebanon is within national norms, both as to police and as to fire.
But the statistics are misleading, and they are only a beginning of an analysis. They do not conclude it. Police and fire departments should be considered separately.
On the police department side, Mt. Lebanon is a very, very safe community, with a very low crime rate. However, once in a great while, something traumatic and catastrophic happens in Mt. Lebanon. A police department is a kind of insurance policy: We pay a high premium so that when the metaphoric hurricane hits, we're prepared. For the little stuff -- traffic control, drug education in the schools -- we like the services a lot, but we don't necessarily need every last bit of them. We could reduce our premiums -- pay for fewer police department resources and use that money elsewhere -- and arrange for different kinds of protection in the event of a metaphoric hurricane. For the smaller scale, shorter term, less traumatic neighborhood-level issues, things like Neighborhood Watch programs could make up some of the shortfall.
On the fire department side, Mt. Lebanon is like much of Pittsburgh: filled with very old homes that present unusual risks. Neighborhood Watch programs aren't as effective; it is more difficult for many people to see and respond on their own to the kinds of risks that these homes create. Still, it is worth wondering out loud whether Mt. Lebanon and neighboring communities collaborate on capital investments, staff, and training to the maximum extent that they might. Mt. Lebanon is very proud of the fact that we have a "real" firefighting force, supplemented by a collection of well-trained volunteers. With fewer paid professionals, more volunteers, and especially more collaboration with neighboring communities, could we have the same level of security without spending as much money? It is a conversation worth having.
Public safety is something of a sacred cow, which is why I lead off with it. Get the difficult stuff out on the table first. If that's not your cup of tea, then how about some lower hanging fruit:
How much money does Mt. Lebanon Public Works pay for leaf-sucking? The cost of the vacuum devices and the cost of the staff may be sunk, so it may be that the marginal cost of leaf pick-up every Fall is fairly small. But it is surely a luxury, and the town wouldn't be different without it.
Likewise, the fact that we have unlimited sidewalk garbage disposal (as many cans, boxes, and sofas as you can throw away in a given week) is both fiscally luxurious and environmentally wasteful. If you really want Mt. Lebanon to get Kermit's seal of approval ("It isn't easy being green"), then the next garbage disposal contract should limit each household to a single can of trash per week. Sofas and extra cans cost more.
To reiterate: These are public conversation starters. There are other things that you might prefer to raise; go ahead, in the comments. I'm confident that the Commissioners and the Municipality staff have long been involved in comparable discussions. It's time that the town talked about them too, and in public.
Labels: serious topics for serious times