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Woodbury Shows How Coffee Shop Spending = Potable Water and City Parks

Date Published: 12/18/2007

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WdbrycostcompareSometimes it's hard to decide which anti-government myth is more ridiculous:  that the public sector is too expensive or that it doesn't provide anything of value.   

And one of our ongoing challenges in making the case for more public investment is explaining to folks - in clear and more vivid ways - the good that our government does. We need to show, not just tell, the story about the myriad things at bargain prices that government provides for our quality of life and prosperity.   

So we applaud the City of Woodbury, which for several years has been using a rather simple device that helps illuminate this truth.   On the front page of the "City Update'' newsletter is a bar graph that compares what citizens pay annually in property taxes for various essential city services with what they typically pay in the private sector for - dare we say - less essential goods and services.

For instance, the graph shows that a year's supply of safe drinking water (state and local officials in Woodbury are working hard to assure water safety after discovering pollution caused by the private sector) AND a well-designed system of city parks costs the average homeowner a grand total of $214 in property taxes a year. That's about how much it costs to get a fancy coffee at the local Caribou twice a week ($210) for a year. And it turns out that a year of potable water and nice parks costs about one-third as much as a year of cable TV ($634).

Other fun and instructive cross comparisons: Taxes for fire and police protection for one year in Woodbury come to $307 per typical homeowner, compared to $420 a year for a monthly dinner out at a decent restaurant ($35 for 2).

As a career newsman and private-sector employee, I hate to acknowledge that buying and reading the local rag is anything but essential, but, an entire year's bill for all the street maintenance and other miscellaneous public works provided by Woodbury amounts to less ($205 per typical homeowner) than a year's daily newspaper subscription ($213).

Nobody would argue that citizens shouldn't have plenty of money to spend or invest on themselves, whether it's for cable TV or eating out every day of the week or fixing the roof or saving for retirement.   But we are nowhere close to a confiscatory tax policy in this nation or state, relative to democratic nations with similar wealth and advanced public infrastructure.

America has the smallest non-defense public sector among peer nations, providing less economic security for the poor and the middle-class and making the United States arguably the most advantageous nation in the world in which to be rich. Furthermore, once progressive Minnesota in recent years has slashed government budgets and fallen to about average among the states in total taxes as a percentage of income.

At Growth & Justice we've weighed in before on this dubious conservative mantra that "You can spend your money better than the government can spend your money.''   Sometimes that might be true and government sometimes can be more wasteful and inefficient than individuals or businesses. 

But we applaud Woodbury and other government communicators who make the effort to point out that the community things we invest in are at least as valuable, if not more so, than our individual spending. And also, a pretty good bargain.

Dane Smith

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