Budget cuts highlight fundamental questions

Newport Beach mayor Keith Curry went public last week with a roseate picture of how his city has created and abided by a 15-point sustainable plan that is delivering "a leaner, more efficient, more effective and better-managed" city government. As a result, he tells us, the City Council has turned a projected $8 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2009-10 into a balanced budget without tapping into operating reserves.

While this merits an "attaway, Newport Beach," it also raises an obvious question that might well be asked across the country: If this could be accomplished so readily under the stress of economic necessity, why wasn't it done before the crisis required it?

Which leads to another fundamental observation that needs to be addressed: Either the city has been miserably mismanaged or the cuts in budget are depriving us of essential, maybe even dangerously low, levels of public service. Or both.

Only the elimination of 37 full-time city employees suggested a harder look at what was lost in the mayor's presentation. That and a much more detailed examination of the previous management's handling of such personnel problems as the infighting in the police department — which cost the city more than $1 million in one case alone — and tougher exploration of the background of new hires at every level — the city attorney comes to mind — which cost the city considerable embarrassment. Both touch on issues, it seems to me, that should of interest to a local citizens commission set up to improve city services.

It is to Curry's credit that he didn't raise the "No More Taxes" flag before which virtually all politicians at every level genuflect these days. The only reference to taxes in his report was an offhand comment that "we are also working to expand our local tax base and economy." This is a civilized and rational substitute for "never, never ever, under any circumstance, will I support or initiate any effort to raise taxes."

I don't find this sort of absolution even marginally comforting. It's rather like sending a warrior into combat after binding his right arm to his side.

Taxation fuels the machinery that runs our country. Assuredly, it can be excessive, unfair, badly used and a lot of other uncivil names. But what it can't be is absent from the mix of governing tools that need fixing, not obliterating. But because it works, political candidates will continue to shout their promises for a moratorium on taxes, and then turn to new taxation once they are in office. And the cycle goes on and on, and the sham continues to get ill-equipped, and even venal, candidates into public office.

How long have you wondered, along with me, if it is possible to elect a candidate who tells it like it is and pledges to use all the tools at his or her command, including taxation, to achieve badly needed ends? Well, it has happened at least once in my lifetime at the presidential level. And our side didn't win.

The year was 1984, and the candidates were then-President Ronald Reagan and Sen. (and once vice president) Walter Mondale. Reagan was taking the tried-and-true route of bashing taxation to a country that found him warm and soothing. So the frustrated Mondale chose to take the leap and tell it like it was.

In a major campaign speech, Mondale said, "By the end of my first term I will reduce the Reagan budget by two-thirds. Let's tell the truth. It must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."

Two things followed soon thereafter. Mondale suffered the worst defeat in Democratic Party history. And Reagan raised taxes.

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Meanwhile, construction work continues quietly on the "improvements" at John Wayne Airport accompanied by hints that commercial international flights, all non-expansion, of course, may be eyeing the new gates soon to be available at JWA.

While we await the new tenants, the Federal Aviation Administration has launched Fix No. 3 in its effort to soften takeoff noise over the cacophonous complaints of local citizens being initiated into the noise we've known so well and for so long.

Although it isn't official, I think I see what the feds are up to. The procedure under the newest takeoff plan at JWA will continue until the people under its path raise enough hell that Fix No. 4 kicks in.

That, in turn, will be supplanted by Fix No. 5 and so on. This way the pain will be spread around and all of us can share the burden equally, the FAA tone seemed to be hardening recently when its spokesman said, "We've really gone the extra mile in this case."

Well, so have we, even if it didn't appear in Curry's 15-point plan.

JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.

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