Soundings : True joys
There's an understandable air of anxiety across the Island this June, as we enter a summer season that will play out in an economic environment that has changed drastically from just a year ago.
The atmosphere of concern spans both the private and the public sectors. In our town governments, financial managers are dealing with a double-whammy. One strategy for coping with the limits of Proposition 2 ½ has been to boost town fees as sharply as the market will bear, and this seemed to work until the recent slowdown revealed that our towns are now heavily dependent on a source of revenue that's, well, undependable. Combine the loss of fee-based revenues with the state's cutback in aid to towns, and it adds up to serious shortfalls for town budgets.
In Oak Bluffs, the talk is of municipal staffing cutbacks. In Edgartown, department heads are being urged to look for every possible source of revenue - which sounds frighteningly like moving toward a greater dependence on fees just when the slumping economy is showing us how risky that is.
At the Edgartown Free Public Library, where I work, there's been no serious discussion yet of chiseling the word "Free" off the front of the building. But you could certainly argue that if any of our town departments are ripe for recasting as sources of fresh revenue, it's our public libraries. DVD rentals for free? Hours of computer time at no charge? Aren't we leaving potential money on the table here?
Yes, you could make that argument, especially if you've fallen prey to the notion that government should be run like a business.
It helps, I think, to remember that business is the arena which builds wealth for private individuals, while government fosters the sort of wealth which belongs to all of us. One measure of a community's wealth is the value of those private homes along the waterfront; another is the value of those things that everyone can enjoy - from parks and schools and libraries to public transportation, clean streets, good drinking water, police and fire protection.
One salutary effect of our nation's wrenching economic readjustment has been a broad reconsideration of how we've been balancing our investments in the public and private spheres. Perhaps we don't all yet have the vocabulary for this conversation, but just look at what's been happening lately:
The New York Times last week reported that the auto industry now fears Americans are losing their interest in purchasing a new car every two or three years. (The Vineyard seems already to be cured of this disease. According to the state, which tracks this sort of thing, the average age of registered vehicles is 12.9 years in Tisbury, 13.5 years in Edgartown and 14.4 years in Aquinnah.) Meanwhile, as stimulus to the economy, our nation is pouring billions into such infrastructure as public transit systems.
Economists everywhere are asking when American consumers will regain their confidence and get back in harness driving the world economy. But at the same time, we're realizing that there can't be a return to the days of running up the credit cards, spending more than we earn or produce. That economic engine is broken and can't be fixed.