The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 3, 2013

Governments owe taxpayers fiscal prudence


Daily Item

---- — Monroe Township in Snyder County is home to more than half the bustling commercial stretch of Routes 11-15 -- anchored by the Susquehanna Valley Mall, Monroe Marketplace and numerous chain restaurants and stores in between. It is also home to a budget reserve of $1.59 million -- $300,000 more than the township's annual operating budget.

It is just one of several local municipalities that are accumulating money -- neighboring Penn Township has $1 million in its reserve fund and Selinsgrove has more than $2 million banked.

A spokeswoman at the state association of townships said the organization does not track the status of municipal budget reserves, but noted that anecdotally it appears that many governments are struggling to pay the bills.

Monroe Township has double the population of its next-door neighbor Shamokin Dam borough, but the borough has its own municipal police force, while the township relies on state police. Other larger townships that offer broader public services appear to have less money so readily available. Point Township in Northumberland County has a police department and $250,000 in the bank. East Buffalo Township in Union County recently merged its police department with its sister municipality, Lewisburg. Point Township is starting out 2013 with about $475,000 in reserve and intends to spend about half of it on stormwater improvements, truck purchases and other capital expenses. East Buffalo Township finished 2012 with $160,000 in its reserve fund, an amount that one supervisor argued cannot be considered "surplus" as the municipality absorbs the $3.5 million cost of a new municipal complex.

There is a balance that must be struck between fiscal prudence and the ability to offer the services expected by constituents. The national mood is clear: Americans have lost patience with government leaders who demonstrate no discipline on spending. At the same time, governments that collect taxes have a responsibility to be transparent about what they intend to do with the money. Saving money in challenging economic times is laudable, as long as there is some clear plan to devote that money for some tangible public good. It is, after all, the public's money. If the government does not need it, taxpayers would certainly prefer to use it themselves.

Elected officials, at even the most local level, must be accountable for the way the public dime is being spent, and even how it is not being spent, if that is the case.