Spending the public’s money
Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 2, 2009
SOME POLITICOS come from the left, some come from the right, and the other 90% come from the position of expedience to ensure their own survival in office, but one thing they all have in common, regardless of their country of origin, is the love of spending the public’s money as if it were their own.
The idea that public funds are not theirs to use unless there’s a good reason and the public interest is at stake seems to have escaped them. That in itself is bad enough, but the problem is compounded when the money is spent on useless endeavors. It isn’t just a taste for pork; public servants also find it delectable to dine on taxpayer funds by spending money on projects that sound good, regardless of their inadvisability.
It’s not easy to track the wastage at the national level, and it’s made more difficult because the self-congratulatory marvels of the media usually can’t be bothered to stir themselves from their porta-thrones to do any serious digging. Imagine then how difficult it is to keep tabs on these expenditures at the local level.
Some examples have been coming to light in Japan in recent years, most notably the case of Yubari, Hokkaido. Smack dab in the middle of a snow belt, the town of 13,000 people had a municipal Ferris wheel, History Village, robot museum, stuffed animal museum, fossil museum, and coal mine museum. There were more than 20 facilities paid for by the central government with the objective of attracting tourists to a semi-isolated rural area, but they were all dismal failures, as anyone in the private sector could have predicted. The town now has a debt equivalent to $500 million, forcing them to curtail more mundane but much more useful city services. Yubari once had 11 schools; soon it will have only three or four. It once had a library, city hall branches, bus discounts for the elderly, municipal trash collection, and a lavatory at the train station. Not any more.
And the Ferris wheel isn’t operating either.
Still other examples of wasteful public expenditure are in plain sight, and people seem unmotivated to do anything about them. Take the case of Naka-cho, Tokushima.
Twenty years ago the municipality formed a public-private partnership to operate a resort on public property. The resort is named Aiairando (Love Island; Love Love Land is also possible). It is owned by Naka-cho and operated and managed by the partnership, which is called I.F.
The resort covers about four hectares of land. It has a wooded plaza, 14 cottages, a woodworking studio, a campsite, tennis courts, a restaurant, shops, and a garden with 10,000 hydrangeas. The public was initially interested in Aiairando, and visitor totals reached 38,640 in 1991, generating income of roughly 37 million yen (about $US 400,000 today).
But public interest soon waned, so an attempt was made to lure back the public by installing playground equipment and eliminating the admission fee. This resulted in a temporary rebound, but the numbers started falling again. The park was visited by 15,767 people in 2007, and it generated income of only nine million yen (about $US 92,000). Five million yen of that was accounted for by the operating commission paid by the municipal government.
I.F. executives attribute the visitor falloff to the number of similar resorts in the area and the diversification of leisure activities. They also note that the facilities themselves have aged, and warn that visitors will not come unless new facilities are provided. Yet, they say, the municipality is on a tight budget and it would be difficult to ask them for money.
Here’s the worst part: Naka-cho’s chief municipal officer says the original objective for the resort was not to generate income. Yet, despite the problems with finances, the municipality is still considering ways to improve the facilities.
If he’s serious about any of that, the man should be out of a job. It is not the business of municipal governments to operate resorts, for any reason whatsoever. Yet, when everyone admits there are similar resorts in the area, why is Naka-cho still involved in this one?
And why did it get involved in operating a resort if the idea wasn’t to generate income to begin with? A municipal park may improve the quality of life in a district, but people are capable of fending for themselves when it comes to finding more sophisticated ways to spend their free time.
So the resort wasn’t really needed, no one’s coming any more, the facilities need replacing, and what does the CMO say? The town will look for ways to find the money the resort needs.
In the private sector, people are cautioned about throwing good money after bad. Apparently that concept hasn’t penetrated the public sector yet.
But why should we expect it to?
It’s easy to spend money when it isn’t yours to begin with.