When is a ‘bargain’ not a bargain?
By LPR Staff
Under normal circumstances, I”m a big believer in planning for the “what-ifs” in life. After all, people are only human, and while we have some degree of control over what might happen to us, we never really know what will come next.
Sometimes, though, I can”t support planning for the “what if.” On Tuesday evening, the Lockhart City Council present
ed one of those situations.
Recently, the City of Austin invited Caldwell, Lee and Bastrop Counties to participate in a grant program to upgrade radio communication equipment, with the intention of increasing the region”s “level of interoperability,” or ability to communicate via radio from one county to the next. Three years ago, Williamson County signed on to participate in the program, allowing for unlimited access between Williamson County, Travis County and the City of Austin.
That makes sense. Thanks to “urban sprawl,” it is difficult to tell where the City of Austin ends and Williamson County begins. Agencies in those counties need to be able to communicate unimpeded.
Right now, today, that is not the case with Caldwell County. Right now, today, there is still a 25-mile buffer between Lockhart and the City of Austin, and a good 15-mile buffer between Caldwell County and the City of Austin. While “interoperability” is going to be necessary eventually, it is not necessarily critical just now.
Last week during the meeting of the Caldwell County Commissioners” Court, most of the Commissioners acknowledged this fact. They recognized that the citizens of Caldwell County have more pressing problems than upgrading to state-of-the-art communication equipment.
The Lockhart City Council, however, apparently thinks radios are important.
On Tuesday, the council voted to participate in the very same grant program that the County shot down eight days before. Some of the same ideas about the grant program that seemed to trouble the Commissioners are also troubling me.
On the one hand, the grant program will offer 75 percent payment for new equipment, with a 25 percent up-front match required. The equipment the City hopes to acquire, some 170 radios and new system controllers, will cost in the neighborhood of $2.2 million. The grant will provide for $1.775 million, leaving the City”s up-front match at $443,000.
The justification for this purchase is that the current controller and radio system is outdated, and Motorola will soon stop supporting it. If it fails, the City will have to buy a new one, and the City of Austin is offering to pay the lion”s share of that price with the grant program.
That looks great on the surface. Until you stop and think about the fact that the grant awards won”t be announced until September, well after the council has passed the yearly budget. So the budget will plan for purchasing the bonds to finance the equipment without knowing whether the grant will come through.
Which means the council is already planning for at least a 1.5-cent tax increase (perhaps more after they complete the budget process), and might just wind up socking that money away for a rainy day if grant approval does not come through.
What”s more, not three years ago, the City was under such a tight budget crunch they had to eliminate jobs to find $125,000. Now, suddenly we can come up with $443,000? I”m pretty sure the police officers that left “through attrition” to make up the budget shortfall would much rather have their jobs than new radios. And I”m almost certain the officers still with us would rather have those positions filled, so they have available backup. It”s hard to call for assistance on a new radio when no one is on the other end to answer. That $443,000 could fund salaries for about 13 new police officers or 15 new firefighters, or it could fund significant raises for, basically, every emergency service employee in the City.
It”s true, the City may never get another opportunity like this. Eventually, we”ll need the equipment, and if we get this grant, the City of Austin will pay for 75 percent of it.
But the fact is, we have to live within our means in our homes, and we should hold our leadership”s collective feet to the fire to make them do the same.
After all, if a man walks into a store, finds a suit he does not need on sale for 75 percent off and buys the suit, he hasn”t really saved any money.