The county saw two different approaches to public projects play out this week. The first was on Tuesday when the Board of County Commissioners voted 3-2 to direct staff to develop a plan for a new animal shelter designating between an $8-9 million budget with the cost to be financed over 10 years.
The second was the following morning on Wednesday when the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office unveiled a law enforcement memorial monument that cost over $60,000 but that was fully funded through private donations. It is paid in full without using any public money.
This column is not going to cast blame on the commission for using taxpayer dollars on the shelter, something that this publication has acknowledged would need to be part of the process, nor is this column going to try to equate a mid-five figure project like the law enforcement memorial to a multi-million dollar undertaking like the animal shelter. This would be an incongruent argument.
To say nothing can be learned from the two projects though would be equally as disingenuous as saying there is only one right way to approach getting public works completed.
An old conservative cliché is government should run like a business. There is some merit to this claim, but it should more accurately be said either government should run more like a business or government should run like a business sometimes. The blanket statement that government should run like a business can lead to some troublesome situations.
The BOCC may have stumbled into one of these situations on Tuesday. In our podcast that aired about an hour before the meeting took place, I talked about dichotomous action and the dangers of taking an all or nothing approach in government.
Commissioner Jeff Kinnard’s hail mary proposal felt like trying to get to the final step before the commission had even determined the first step.
This can work in business where you personally assume the risk and you have an entire career to recuperate losses if the reward never comes to fruition. That’s not how government works.
We call our elected officials public servants, a term that signifies our independence from government rather than our identity with it, but a more accurate definition is public stewards.
They should make decisions minimizing risk because the taxpayer, not the official, assumes the risk and there is often changeover, which is a good thing, but that means priorities get shuffled and no elected official wants to spend his or her career dedicated to cleaning up the mess of the previous administration. They want to define themselves.
Another reason why applying business philosophies to governing in this way doesn't work is because the strengths of entrepreneurs and administrators are different. Both can be hardworking and dedicated individuals. This isn’t a value assessment that is placing one career over the other but they do require two different approaches.
I tell my students that the most important skill in entrepreneurship is problem solving. You don’t have to be the most talented or even the best product, but you do have to adapt to change and be creative in trying new approaches when others fail. That’s what leads to the risk.
Administrators aren’t problem solvers primarily but rather task managers. They execute orders effectively rather than forging new paths and trade the potential of big reward for the security of little risk such as a government pension and benefits along the way.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the three yes votes for the shelter were the three commissioners (Kinnard, Davis and Schlabach) seen primarily as business people while the two no votes (Carnahan and Kitchen) have business backgrounds but in the last decade are much more associated with government than the private sector. I am for a new animal shelter but I’m incredibly concerned about the way this is handled.
Every now and then, you do get administrators who creatively problem solve to limit, and at times eliminate, taxpayer risk. Sheriff Mike Prendergast demonstrated this with the memorial.
But even that took the Sheriff five years to accomplish whereas this new BOCC searched for solutions for seven months before giving up and rolling the dice on a plan that will cost the county between $500,000-$600,000 per year in debt service for the next ten years.
This type of all or nothing, big risk action is glorified in the private sector, and it should be, but problematic when government is run like a business.