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It’s not AIG but partying on taxpayers’ dime just doesn’t seem right

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POSTED March 24, 2009 4:20 a.m.
It wasn’t a posh party by any means and certainly not by AIG standards. It was a catered dinner at the MRPS Hall costing around $9,000.

Nor were there plush AIG-style bonuses. At most, perhaps several hundred dollars was spent on plaques and awards.

Yet there are plenty of grumblings around Manteca today about Saturday’s 41st annual City of Manteca employee recognition awards dinner. It did, after all, involve tax dollars at a time when municipal workers are being asked to take non-paid furloughs, tax increases are being seriously considered for placement before voters, and services in general are being cut back as city revenues plummet.

One reader complaining noted his firm had to let three quarters of its staff go this year due to the slowdown and sustainably pared back their Christmas party to a low-key outing to the bowling alley as it didn’t seem right to celebrate when fellow employees lost their jobs.

Another noted as an owner he cut out everything – including celebratory lunches – that weren’t essential so he could avoid laying off a worker.

The arguments the city may use for proceeding could run the gamut from the evening being a morale booster to the fact that $9,000 is a proverbial drop in the bucket. Unfortunately, that was also the AIG arguments for the lavish parties after the first bailout and for why they went ahead with bonuses fatter than the gross national product of some Third World countries.

Times are changing. Most private sector businesses – which still provide the bulks of jobs in this country by a wide margin – are rethinking the way they operate. As they are placed under stress with stagnant or dropping sales the government at various levels is increasing taxes on them because they didn’t curtail spending soon enough. Government, unlike businesses - unless you are a monopolistic public utility like PG&E – has the ability to raise fees regardless of the market. While they can’t raise general taxes per se without the concurrence of voters, they can raise other fees that are justified by nexuses. Businesses can’t do that without running the risk of being undercut by competitors or pricing themselves out of business so they look at ways to get leaner and meaner.

It is foolish, though, to say government should be a business. By government’s basic mission – providing services that can’t be provided by individuals acting alone or in fragmented groups – they are a different animal.

That $9,000 is a sixth of the cost of one park maintenance worker’s salary and benefits. It is the city’s property tax share of that paid by five households with homes valued at $180,000. That money has real value to people in Manteca who work for this city, who live in this city, and who pay taxes to make this city a stronger community.

It is more difficult to wrap oneself around a $15 million bonus. It’s an outrageous amount but it is an abstract to most of us who will never see that kind of money.

The City of Manteca isn’t the only jurisdiction that needs to rethink how it does business and spends money not just in the face of the economic crisis we’re muddling through but in perpetuity.  Manteca Unified for years justified bringing in sandwiches before board meetings so administrators and school board members could partake on the taxpayer’s dime because they didn’t have time to go home or go out to grab a bite to eat.

Do what the rest of us would have to do – pack a lunch, pick it up at a fast food place or – heaven forbid – have it delivered (it’s kind of like being catered) and pay for it yourself. If a taxpayer has to work overtime or has to run to a second job right after the first, they find way to grab a bite to eat on the fly and pay for it themselves.

Lathrop also is not without sin against taxpayers. They fret about those struggling to cover sewer and water bills they had no choice but to raise to cover costs yet they had no problem not once, not twice, but three times since the budget crisis became evident to cater spreads for council celebrations that included shrimp cocktail to munch on at the cost of $300-plus each time.

That, in case anyone cares, is more than enough to cover the cost of a household’s sewer and water bills for more than a year.

And while the money may come from the general fund, it is still in-your-face when the very Lathrop City Council that worried about the struggling needy being able to feed themselves and gives not local money but federal pass through money to the food bank in a tinge of concern yet stuffs their own mouths with cocktail shrimp on the taxpayers’ dime.
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