Saturday, March 27, 2010

Public Bankruptcy

In 2008, Vallejo, California declared Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Vallejo is a Bay Area community of 121,000 that became the state's largest city to declare bankruptcy. In a March 27, 2010 story in The Wall Street Journal entitled "Vallejo's Painful Lessons in Municipal Bankruptcy", author Steven Greenhut writes the following:

A report issued by the Cato Institute last September noted that 74% of the city's general budget was eaten up by police and firefighter salaries and overtime along with pension obligations. The average city in the state spends 60% of its budget on those things. The study also found that lavish pay and benefit packages were a root cause of the city's problems. In Vallejo compensation for police captains top $300,000 a year and average $171,000 a year for firefighters. Regular public employees in the city can retire at age 55 with 81% of their final year's pay guaranteed. Police and fire officials can retire at age 50 with a pension that pays them 90% of their final year's salary every year for life and lives of their spouses.

This may become a disturbing trend. The hallmark of any democratic society is the understanding that trust, cooperation and progressive taxation will hopefully lead to varying degrees of security, prosperity, social services, and greater prosperity. Police and firefighters play a critical role in this equation. It fundamentally is an equation - - where one side balances and sums to another side. If the equation becomes mismanaged, things like trust, cooperation, and prosperity become damaged and unbalanced in the name of public safety and security. Yes, we all have a desire to see the patrol car in the neighborhood - - but at the expense of new roads and basic highway maintenance? Firefighting capabilities are critical for public safety - - but what if the water distribution system becomes so deteriorated because of budget constraints? Nice trucks and great retirement benefits are rather immaterial without reliable and available water supplies and distribution.

We are all concentrating on sustainability - - buildings, materials, energy sources - - engineers that are focused on the sustainability of discrete elements within very complex systems. Have we thought enough about sustainability for the water system - - in the context of the complete system and system interfaces? It makes little difference to have a sustainable water system if the underlying and supporting political, economic, and societal systems are unsustainable. One supports the other. Is engineering fundamentally about the narrowness of the trees or expansiveness of the forests - - where our talents become minimized by concentrating on just the LEED certification of the new fire station versus looking at the sustainability of the entire firefighting enterprise?

It is an equation - - the public equation that we all have responsibility to understand and be a part of. If one part of the equation sums to greater and greater totals - - we all need to understand the impact relating to the summation of the minuses on the other side. The basic question becomes - - how sustainable are the total systems that support basic democratic and governmental functions?

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