Leaders can’t put public funds at risk | Rich Elfers

“Never put public funds at risk.”

These were the words of Courier-Herald Editor Dennis Box as we debriefed each other after a recent City Council meeting. The hotly debated issue before the Council was whether to take up to $1.5 million out of reserves to build the Welcome Center and save the $1.3 million Federal Scenic Byway grant we had obtained 12 years earlier, or to drop the project and return the grant to the federal government.

Government is not business. Government does not operate, nor is its purpose, the same as a business. Business exists to sell a product or service at a profit.  Government exists to serve the public. Making a profit is not a factor.

Risk-taking is part and parcel of a company’s business plan. Government’s role is to protect the taxpayer’s money.

Out of the Council debate came a principle, an axiom, about future governmental decisions at all levels of government: “Don’t speculate with the public’s money.”

The grant’s “use by” date was due to run out Sept. 30, if a construction contract had not been signed. Plus, if the Welcome Center was not built, the city might have to pay back an additional nearly $582,000 it had already spent on design. The debate in the Council raged between three who strongly stated we should “build it and they will come” and three who stated the risks were too high and the guaranteed return too low.

Chance LaFleur spoke out first against continuing. Jim Hogan, the only councilmember who had served 11 years on Council, followed. Hoke Overland had already made his view clear the previous meeting by making a motion to end spending any more money on plan development. He had been voted down 6-1.

Council members Darrel Dickson, Juanita Carstens, and Morgan Irwin voted in favor. Irwin spoke the most eloquently that the building would be an investment for the future that could be sold at a later date for a return on the city’s investment.

Mike Sando’s vote turned the tide against building the Welcome Center. Although there were several Council members who argued back and forth after he stated his position, the decision of the Council had already been determined.

At that point, I breathed a sign of relief.  I was one of two in the audience who had spoken against it before the vote. My arguments were that while I hated to lose $3.3 million in federal grants, I also hated to drain up to $1.5 million from reserves to build a 7,000 square foot building with no definite renters, no interpretive center, and no clear funding source to pay for maintenance or staffing.

The right decision was made. Perhaps the other three remaining grants can be used to purchase a building for a Welcome Center, perhaps not. In the meantime, the principle that should govern all governmental decisions held: “Never speculate with public funds.”