Priorities need to justify government spending - July/August 2016

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I must admit, I'm having trouble trying to figure out what the heck happened in Flint, Michigan with how a local municipal water system problem suddenly became a national problem. It seems one of the most basic roles of local government is to provide for the health and safety of their citizens. What is puzzling to me is how this basic role suddenly became the fault of the state of Michigan or the federal government.

Flint's problems started when they decided to stop getting their water from Detroit municipal water system and instead started getting water from the nearby Flint River. The water in the Flint River apparently required a treatment process which would prevent lead in the municipal water system from leaching into the water supplied to their citizens. Of course lead lined pipes in homes also impacted the situation.  

Once the levels were discovered to be so high, then the whole process reached the national news media and all of a sudden it became a national problem which resulted in the President weighing in with comments and your dollars.

But it still begs the question about why the local level of government, which should have been the level that addressed supplying water to its citizens, managed to avoid culpability for their actions. No doubt the current group of leaders and staff is different than the group when the problem began, but it seems the main problem stemmed from past bad decisions. Flint leaders no doubt spent millions of dollars on all kinds of activities which they felt were important, but their priorities weren't right.

This can provide an important lesson to us in Wyoming. All too often we find ourselves looking at the state budget and trying to determine how we should spend the dollars we have. When things are going well there are a lot of fun things we can do with the public's money and the justification for spending money on those items seems perfectly reasonable at the time. Now, however, we aren't doing so well on the money front. This is where Flint can provide a lesson for us. There will never be enough money to provide all of the things people want. Citizens need to decide on priorities. Having a greenway is nice unless you spend the money that should have been used for water infrastructure. Then you've let your citizens down.

I'd bet there were several millions of dollars spent on projects in Flint that seemed pretty important – until the water system fell apart. After that happened I bet there were a lot of officials that wished they had the money they spent on those other projects so they could fix the water system.

We need to remind ourselves what government should be doing and what it should not be doing. Police protection, essential services like water systems, sewage systems and garbage collection and transportation infrastructure should also be high on the list for cities like Flint. If those things cannot be provided, then officials need to look at their priorities to see just why they don't have the money to accomplish those services. Perhaps priorities need to be looked at in all government funding situations.

Unless you might have missed it, there is an election coming up. Perhaps questions about priorities should be asked of those local candidates and we should always remind ourselves, and those that represent us, about priorities in government. In addition to local elections, Wyoming will elect a new representative. Farm Bureau staff asked the declared candidates about some hot issues on which we've been working. I encourage you to review their responses in this issue; they should help you make up your mind when you go to the voting booth in August and November.

By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President