This commentary originally appeared in the Austin America-Statesman on February 24, 2017.
Will Rogers once famously teased: “I don’t make jokes. I just watch government and report the facts.” It’s a shame that Will isn’t around to chronicle today’s city government shenanigans. It’d be like shooting fish in a barrel.
In the capital city, where the motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” city officials just launched a peculiar new program aimed at bringing artists into the bureaucratic fold.
Austin officials want to improve how city government works, and so its Cultural Arts Division is spending about $15,000 on a nine-month pilot program that will embed an artist in many of its core departments. The rationale, a city spokesperson said, “is to introduce to the department the eye of an artist, because they think outside of the box.”
First to receive this artistic boost is the city’s Watershed Protection Department, whose job it is to deal with flood, erosion and water pollution problems. How exactly an artist will improve flood control — or any core function of government for that matter — is anyone’s guess really, including the city.
Despite spending public funds on the project, the city has no idea what it is getting in return. Its job posting for the position, which is full of feel-good rhetoric, reveals as much, stating that the final product isn’t necessarily expected to be a work of art and “may take any number of shapes.”
Eighty miles south of Austin in the Alamo City, city officials are literally flushing tax dollars down the toilet.
In a bid to be more like San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston, San Antonio City Council members recently built a state-of-the-art stainless steel bathroom kiosk in the middle of a busy downtown area. The cost for this souped up port-a-potty is $200,000 — for now.
As other cities have learned, the cost for these outdoor kiosks can quickly spiral if the facility becomes a hub for unlawful behavior, like drug use and prostitution. For obvious reasons, these illicit activities have the potential to spike the maintenance costs dramatically.
In Fort Worth, city officials are spending big on public art despite serious pension and debt issues.
One of the city’s latest million-dollar public art pieces is the “Wind Roundabout,” which has been described as a “kinetic sculpture powered by wind” that “looks a bit like an oversized hair catcher used in drains.” And the waste doesn’t stop there. Officials are looking to blow away taxpayers with more than $10 million worth of new public art projects planned for the near future.
All of Fort Worth’s public art spending is, of course, happening against the backdrop of massive debts and growing pension obligations. The latest data shows that the city’s total debt exceeds $2.1 billion, while the Fort Worth Employees’ Retirement Fund has unfunded liabilities of $1.4 billion. Both problems were cited as primary causes for Moody’s recent downgrade of the city’s credit rating.
The programs and projects above are just a small sample of the big-time waste that exists in places like Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth and elsewhere. These real-life examples are living, breathing proof that city governments have plenty of fat in their budgets and little incentive to prioritize.
That city governments have enough padding in their budgets to embed artists in agencies, spend lavishly on public toilets, and fritter away on public art projects is something that state lawmakers would do well to remember in the coming months. Soon they’ll be set upon by a swarm of taxpayer-funded lobbyists warning of dire consequences for police, fire and other public safety services in the event property tax reform becomes a reality. But that’s simply not the case.
The evidence quite clearly shows that city coffers are stuffed with plenty of money — it’s just not being spent in the right ways.