Sunday, August 06, 2006

Pay Me now, or Pay Me Later

I drive a somewhat beat-up '77 Ford F-150. Friends who know I can afford (slightly) better sometines ask why I drive that old junker. My reply: when I turn the key, it goes "Vroom", and takes me where I need to go; it is on propane and I pay $1.80 for fuel; and most importantly, it is paid for!

When I read of the huge infrastructure costs looming, I try to put them in the context of my pickup.

The water line work is indisputable. Two downtown breaks, one involving a front page picture of workers up to their necks in water, then the tragic fire at Honey Creek with no effective water pressure and purely decorative fireplugs, Yeah, I've got to agree, we need to spend serious money on water mains, not just the two inch residential lines. This will have to be paid for, but so long as no one tries to hang a bunch of bells and whistles on the funding, you won't hear this conservative beef about it; this is by definition, the proper work of local government. The fine distinction between city and water dept. budgets I will leave for another day, the point is, we all have a problem that the city will have to fix, and we will all, in one way or another, pay for it.

The school report is a bit different. The totally unrealistic "needs" list comes up with a figure we cannot possibly afford, and I ask , "For what?' Bear in mind, last school bond, I wrote a guest column in the Standard-Times supporting the bond issue, tax increase and all. I had been shown the projects, and used the line in my column that these nearly all fell in the "Pay me now or pay me later" category used in a commercial of the time. Before we can really judge today's high dollar estimate, we need to know the criteria used to declare physical plant unusable.

Most of my primary education happened in a building completed in 1890. Granted, this was the late Paleolithic era and we were happy to be out of the smokey caves our grand-parents had attended. It was also an era when eighth graders were expected to be able to diagram sentences and derive square roots. The first art is totally lost today, even among faculty; the second, I doubt many faculty members could do if an EMP rendered calculators useless.

My point is, reasonably well built buildings do not automatically become obselete in 40 years. We are not now looking at the 17th Sistine Chapel with a Jackson Pollock abstract no one understands on the ceiling. If we need to spend another serious sum on maintainence and upgrades, that is one thing. To suggest that strictly based on age and overdue maintainence we need to start nearly from scratch and build a new school system for a declining enrollment sounds like someone is dreaming with someone else's dollars.

Now we move, as my Mother put it, from the sublime to the ridiculous. It is suggested, with a straight face, that San Angelo needs to spend $14 Million tax dollars (again, I skip over departmental budget details, but it IS public money) to build a convention center/hotel. From the location suggested, I suppose it is intended to relieve the economic blight endemic to Knickerbocker Rd. You see, the AV equipment at the convention center on Concho is outdated. "Golly gee honey, the motor went out on the rear window in the Caddy. Guess we ought to scrap that junker and get a new BMW!"

Let's ignore the huge available square footage of convention space normally unbooked in San Angelo. Forget the 50% average occupancy rate of existing hotels. Completely gloss over the inconvenience that the best-face-on-it figures assume a 70% occupancy of rooms 35% more expensive than similar vacant space in town for this taxpayer financed Taj Mahal to break even. Assume that the tooth fairy was going to leave behind each guest a gold doubloon and this fever dream was ever actually going to make a dime, someone tell me why the city should invest a plugged nickel in it. The city could take a mere $50,000, find a reliable bookie, and bet the Cubs to win the Series. The actuarial odds of making money are better with the bookie.

Back to Realityland. Some things absolutely need ground-up replacing, sooner the better. Other things, like the need for backup water supply ($50 to $150 million) are temporarily on the back burner. Schools probably do need a large sum for upgrades and maintainece, but overall they are in way better shape than the more recently and expensively constructed Boston "Big Dig".

We need to maintain what we have. Don't buy a new $50,000 dually when the '77 paid for Ford still works. Don't design for a 40 year life span to begin with. "Disposable" should be a term used for tissues and diapers, not buildings. I am old enough to remember an aphorism being common; "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without". If that sounds a bit antiquated and overly frugal, compare it to coming up with roughly a Billion dollars we don't have.

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