People setting priorities

Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid has proposed establishing a panel of 15 citizens to offer advice on how the county can weather next year’s budget crunch — expected to be as bad or worse than this year’s.

The proposed panel would meet with county staff, focus groups and the public to gather ideas for handling budget ills brought on by dwindling tax revenues and a state money grab.

One tactic could be to slash some programs and bureaucratic jobs, Mr. Reid volunteered Tuesday. Another could be to pursue federal stimulus money to help pay the county’s bills.

“We have to listen to what people believe are our priorities,” the commissioner said.

County revenues were down $113 million this year. Legislative actions will cost the county an additional $180.5 million over the next two years. And county leaders anticipate a comparable slide in tax revenue in 2010 as commercial property values deteriorate.

Mr. Reid hopes his fellow commissioners will agree to form the task force at their Aug. 4 meeting. The panel would then present a report to commissioners next year.

Mr. Reid insists the exercise would not be limited to writing a new report to gather dust on the same old shelves, but is instead designed to encourage residents to say which services they want to keep whole and which are more expendable.

The commission has given a lot of weight to reports drafted by past citizens’ panels, Mr. Reid said.

The plan seems well worth a try, though recent experience with efforts such as the statewide “SAGE” panel show politicians are happy to embrace recommendations that fit their pre-existing agendas — and offer little offense to their unionized bureaucracies — while more dramatic proposals to get government out of whole fields of endeavor tend to go nowhere.

The devil is in the details, and the details of how such a panel would be appointed are interesting.

Mr. Reid proposes commissioners each pick a citizen with a background in finance for the panel. Those initial seven members would then collectively choose the other eight members — a union law enforcement officer, a union health care employee, a union social service worker, a business leader, a taxpayer advocate, a gaming representative and two more union officials.

But since business owners pay more than their proportionate share of the county’s taxes and fees, shouldn’t they get a larger bank of seats on such a task force?

For that matter, since “taxpayers” pay all the county’s taxes and fees, why only one “taxpayer advocate” on a panel of 15? How shall we describe the other 14 — “taxpayer adversaries”?

Who on such a panel, for example, is likely to ask why small businesses need to buy so many “permits” and “licenses” just to open a legal enterprise in Clark County? Other than checking to make sure structures and plumbing are safe and food service businesses are healthful, how many “license and regulatory” bureaucrats — costing the county way more than $100,000 per year once benefit and pension obligations are factored in — could be put out to pasture if the County Commission simply adopted an ordinance that stated “Profit-making businesses activity is welcome and encouraged and presumed to be legal and proper in Clark County until proven otherwise, without the need to apply for any damned permit”?

Union bureaucrats will tend to object that those fees, licenses and permits — and fines and enforcement efforts against those found “not to be in compliance” — are a great source of revenue.

Really? Or have they, instead, added to the burdens that have caused many small businesses to close during the current recession, decreasing county revenue?

Mr. Reid’s panel could indeed do a lot of good — if a fair number of its members are capable of asking questions like that.

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