This fall, while all eyes seem focused on Washington’s ineptitude in dealing with the nation’s so-called “fiscal cliff,’ I’ve been struck by the parallels to our own fiscal situation in Platteville.
That is, we face our own looming financial problems, our own “Fiscal Cliff.” Only time will tell whether we have the intestinal fortitude to deal with them, or whether we’ll be the founding members of Platteville’s Ostrich Brigade.
I’ve written before how we’re running out of capacity to do the capital projects we need to do — things like roads, storm sewer replacement, dealing with our diminished industrial park capacity, fire and EMS facility problems. By one estimate, we have up to $20 million worth of needs over the next four years, and maybe only $6 million to $7 million of available borrowing capacity and budget capital to deal with it.
That means we either make cuts in our budget and reallocate that money to capital, raise taxes — and hope the city council is wise enough to use that money for capital and not just give it away — or scale back our expectations. Perhaps we simply should stop doing road work for 10 or 15 years.
There are some who will tell you they’re “optimistic.” Well, that’s good, but optimism is never a substitute for realism, nor is it a substitute for facts. I get the sense a few people think our economic development will solve all this, but I can’t figure out how. The math just doesn’t add up.
Optimists — and the mass media — tell us things are getting better, and in a few marginal areas that may be true. But what “better” means is questionable, and it’s not at all clear, based on the math, that “better” will solve our local fiscal cliff.
I’m quite optimistic about our local future, but only if we can continue to take advantage of the opportunities we have — while at the same time being fiscally prudent. But what I see on the national stage is not so encouraging. I spend a lot of time looking beneath the surface of the headline pronouncements, and I see much weakness.
Yes, we have added some jobs, and the unemployment “rate” has fallen, but are they really good jobs? Or are they part-time jobs that pay poorly and provide no benefits? As you may know, those kinds of jobs also count as “employed” despite the fact that they pay much less than the ones they “replace.”
This concerns me. About 70 percent of the U.S. economy comes from consumer spending; if those consumers earn less, they spend less, and the economy suffers.
Speaking of the unemployment rate, it’s actually not a very good indicator of how we’re doing nationally. Our labor force participation rate has fallen to levels not seen since the early 1980s. Literally millions of people have dropped out of the labor force and aren’t counted. If they were, and if one counted all those workers who are underemployed working part time jobs because they can’t find full-time work, our “true” un- and under-employment rate would be more than 22 percent. Yes, 22 percent.
So I’m not just hoping and assuming things will get better nationally. We have our own future here, right in our own hands, if we’re assertive enough to manage it. We need to work hard to ensure we don’t throw that future away by not taking care of problems today when they are much more solveable than they will be tomorrow.
In the end, it’s up to us to demand our elected representatives address the problems we face, and not squint at them through rose-colored glasses. Americans are strong not because we avoid problems, but because we confront and solve them. We need that strength now.
I’m sorry to offer up what is a fairly depressing picture at a time when one might expect me to present a picture of hope. But misinformed hope is nothing but bad news and in fact, I am quite hopeful if we do one thing: face our problems and have the fortitude to solve them.
In the end, we can have the foresight, wisdom, courage and leadership to address these issues … or we can do little, hope that hope itself works, and stick our heads in the ground.
The Community Corner is a weekly column of opinion written by guest columnists UW–Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields; Platteville School District Superintendent Connie Valenza; Chamber Director Kathy Kopp; Main Street Program Director Jack Luedtke; Common Council President Mike Dalecki, Platteville Recreation Coordinator Jordan Burress, State Rep. Travis Tranel, Platteville City Manager Larry Bierke and Police Chief Doug McKinley.