By Mackenzie, D. W.
Freeman , Vol. 62, No. 9
Recent discussions of local government and state finances have focused on high-profile employees. Efforts to control costs in Wisconsin resulted in protests and a recall election. Now Scranton, Pennsylvania, has reduced its workers' wages to the legal minimum wage. Local budgetary crises have made it difficult for towns to pay for police, firefighters, and school teachers. Some people claim that government employment must be maintained - maybe even increased - because these workers provide vital services.
As a teacher at a private college, I can't help but notice that the private sector can and does supply education - as well as security. Private provision of education and security are and will always be imperfect, but the track record of government services is hardly enviable. Towns like Sandy Springs, Georgia, and Maywood, California, have saved money by contracting local services, except for the police and fire departments, out to the private sector. (While bidding for a government contract is semi-competitive - there's only one purchaser - the winning firm is a monopolist, so this arrangement is different from a competitive market.)
We should examine the relative merits of private and government education and security, but there are other issues that may deserve more attention. Many town departments get little scrutiny. The operation of our water, road, recreation, and engineering departments often escapes notice.
Twenty-seven years ago I worked as a summer employee of the Livingston, New Jersey, engineering department. At that time I intended to earn a degree in civil engineering, so this job seemed like a good idea. I was told the engineering department hired several local college students every summer so they could learn surveying, build a résumé, and "earn" some money. During this summer I observed a local government from the inside. I had plenty of time to watch what people were doing because as the chief engineer put it on my first day, "There is no work for you to do in this job." I thought he might be exaggerating, but this was not the case.
One could say that my own observations are merely anecdotal, but Livingston's government works like other municipal governments. A town council makes decisions, and residents pay for these decisions, mostly through property taxes and small fees.
The time I spent not working that summer enabled me to observe others not working. The engineering department of Livingston had three fulltime civil engineers. There wasn't enough actual work to keep even one busy. We surveyed land that had already been surveyed. We observed a road construction project and some housing construction. Very little of what any of us did had any practical purpose.
The water department was slightly more productive. Every morning the water department van would go out to fix broken water mains. Most of the time there were none to fix, so this crew of about a half dozen men would be "on call." How often did water mains break? Once every month or two. How long did it take them to fix a broken main? Two or three days. Do the math and it is obvious that these men were paid to do nothing most of the time. What did they do? They would hang around the local parks, the Livingston Mall, the Donut Basket or somewhere else.
The road department would clear fallen trees or branches a few times a year. During the summer that I worked in the town hall, some of them were busy replacing street signs they had previously misspelled.
The town recreation department was somewhat busy during the spring and summer. I am not sure how they passed the time the rest of the year.
Perhaps the oddest daily event was the 2 p.m. break in the town hall. Every day town employees would gather in the break room for about an hour for donuts and coffee. This was not a break from work so much as a break from sheer boredom. Soon after the "break" ended, town employees would leave this den of inactivity, fill up their cars at the taxpayer-funded town gas pump, and go home. …