Monday, July 11, 2011

Thoughts on pork...

According to a story in yesterday's Advance, the amount of money doled out to the three Staten Island City Council members totaled $2.8 million; funds that were then distributed by Ignizio, Oddo and Rose to local organizations of all types.

It speaks to the heightened level of public awareness that a story like the one published yesterday brought not a round of cheers for a job well done, as it might've in the past, but jeers and catcalls from both ends of the political spectrum.

These are tea party times, and though not everyone is a devotee, everyone seems to be sensitized to the problems that ride on the coattails of profligate spending. So when we live for months with the drama of firehouse closings and teacher layoffs, holding rallies and meetings in protest, we expect that a last-moment reprieve would have left the cupboard bare, as our representatives dutifully hunted down the last morsel of sustenance to feed these essential services.

And what do we find? Enough bread to dole out $2.8 million to our three council members, and though I don't know the exact figure, that amount extrapolates to over $47 million when spread out over the entire 51-person council - an sum that would have rendered the entire firehouse-closing discussion moot.

Councilman Oddo is, of course, correct when he says that nobody knows the wants and needs of his district better than he does - I now get to see that first-hand. And he is correct in his assessment that funds flowing into his district are more properly directed when filtered through his office, rather than through the sometimes myopic, often tone-deaf offices of Manhattan-centric council leadership.

But to the average person it grates. Granted, most of us don't know the ins and outs of the NYC budget, and $47 million is less than a thousandth of the total budget. And yes, to many charitable, cultural and civic organizations these are funds without which they cannot survive. Still – in times of budget crisis, it seems to defy logic.

I suppose we could argue all day long about the proper role of government in our lives, but in these cases we all recognize that we are not talking about true essential services. It is human nature for taxpayers to resent being forced to fund organizations that in times past would have depended on their own fund-raising abilities to survive, their ability to convince the community that they were worthy of a charitable contribution.

Our council members, like our Congressman, are saddled with a burdensome dilemma. On the one hand, they want to avoid being accused of having done nothing for their district - on the other, they want to avoid being accused of being pork-addicts who are contributing to our fiscal woes. Too, in real terms, $47 million is such a small drop in the bucket that had every council member in the city returned the money to the general fund it would barely be noticed, whereas some of the organizations that would be deprived of a grant or contribution would be forced to shut their doors.

It is ironic that such relatively small sums (in government terms) receive so much attention, considering that they contribute such a tiny fraction to our tax burden. The truth is that like an iceberg, most of the city's fiscal danger floats out-of-sight beneath the waterline: pensions, debt service, Medicaid and health care costs. But it just seems so incongruent that scant weeks ago we were biting our nails over firehouse closings and teacher layoffs, and yesterday we were supposed to celebrate charitable and civic contributions made with taxpayer dollars – but without taxpayer approval.

Frank Santarpia
Staten Island, NY