Opinion | Paul Olson: Reducing non-essential spending

A popular online question is, “What if we cut our military budget by 10%?” I have a hunch there is some extravagance in the $778 billion budgeted for 2022. Our blank-check military spending is one of the few things Republicans and Democrats can agree on. With midterm elections in the fall and the ongoing war in Ukraine, it is unlikely there will be tax cuts or money for domestic programs coming out of the Pentagon’s budget anytime soon.

However, there was a time when our federal government actually thought about cutting expenses. In early 1941, the U.S. government became concerned about the federal debt and the likely need for funding a war effort, so they formed the Joint Committee on Reduction of Non-Essential Federal Expenditures, commonly call the Byrd Committee. Over 33 years, this effort at frugality by Congress saved taxpayers billions of dollars. The committee was terminated in 1974 when Congress was certain there was no more wasteful spending to be found.

I would guess there are few in Congress who would welcome back the Byrd Committee as no Congressperson would want a report mentioning that their district is the home of irresponsible spending. But perhaps the government entities in Summit County would be more receptive to this idea.

There is probably much more efficiency locally than in Washington because we don’t have the option of borrowing without voter approval and local budgets are in the comprehensible millions instead of the hard-to-grasp trillions.

We often do not notice what government does well, but we have extremely long memories for news stories about government boondoggles. Summit County property owners get an annual annoyance when the property tax bill arrives, each of us hoping it only inches higher instead of leaping. Coloradans can thank the 1992 TABOR Amendment (Taxpayers Bill of Rights) for making local and state governments operate on fairly lean budgets for three decades. The downside of this amendment’s limits on taxation is that Colorado ranks near the bottom nationally in spending per capita for K-12 education, public health care and college funding.

Summit County Government formed the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee in 2021. This committee of concerned citizens is tasked with advising the Summit County Board of Commissioners on how to best allocate the budget for various departments and projects. Each town in the county should consider adding a similar citizen committee to help in developing effective budgets. This step could reduce taxes and assure citizens that their town is making an extra effort to govern responsibly.

A recent Summit Daily story focused on the importance of local government reviewing the pay of their employees. Though taxpayers want the government to not overspend for payroll, it is also important that local government not underspend so they are competitive in the job market and can attract and retain talented personnel. The COVID-19 pandemic has given local government a good lesson in efficiency by showing that some meetings can be conducted remotely to save on travel and make more efficient use of time.

There also may be savings and added worker satisfaction by allowing more government employees to do some of their work remotely as was done during the COVID-19 shutdown.

We have been fortunate in recent years to have had strong economic growth in Summit County, which has provided the tax revenue to fund public services. However, the prosperity can end. A decline in tourist spending due to our worker shortage may result in lower sales tax revenue. The current surge in home prices will end, perhaps abruptly, and local government will need to be ready to cut back.

The bursting of the housing bubble and the financial crisis in 2008 caused property tax revenue going to Summit County Government to decline by 22% for the subsequent assessment period. Many government employees had to be laid off or work reduced hours. Local government should take the steps needed to run as efficiently as possible now and be prepared for potential adverse economic times.

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