Saturday, January 11, 2003

I Am Haunted By Water

I work in Stillwater and over the past few weeks I've noticed a handful of blue yard signs popping up in the residential neighborhoods, all featuring the word "NO!". There are other, much smaller words on these signs too, which I've presumed explain the point of the dissent being offered. However, recognizing the bullying, temper tantrum style rhetoric as the typical method of political communication from the Left, I haven't really paid too much attention to them. I figured the signs are either screaming "No War on Iraq!" or to vote for "Wellstone!" or perhaps to "Keep Your Church Out of My Crotch!" (The latter slogan I actually saw on a bumper sticker a few years ago. I presume it was either advocating abortion on demand or it was based on someone's mistaken notion that the Catholic Church was attempting to break into the very lucrative feminine hygiene products market).

But curiosity got the better of me today and upon reading these signs, it turns out the full text is "Vote NO! Save the Water Department." Which immediately struck me as the most nonsensical and absurd political slogan since "Vote Mondale-US Senate". Save the Water Department? From what? It’s natural enemy, the Fire Department? Or perhaps from the shock troops of the burgeoning anti-water constituency? I guess you've got to live in Stillwater to know what's behind this.

It's like the signs seen in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul which say "No Connect-Ayd Mill Road". Outsiders and foreigners (like people from Highland Park) probably have no clue what this is about. As a resident of Mac-Grove, I'm not even entirely sure, but it has something to do with finishing off a roadway project begun 30 years ago. My skim reading of the relevant issues surrounding this controversy lead me to believe the dissenting forces are motivated by nothing more than NIMBY-ism. And since the Ayd Mill Road project isn't in my back yard, I've been apathetic toward the issue, which motivated me to add my voice to the conversation by posting the sign, "No Comment-Ayd Mill Road."

Getting back to Stillwater, I've done some perfunctory research into the Water Department threat and it appears that the city is merely trying to merge the Water department with the Public Works department. Financial auditors have determined the city could save up to $172,000 per year, through the elimination of redundant capacity. Because this change would require amending the city charter, it can't be done administratively. Instead, a plebiscite is necessary ( which is being held via mail, with results to be tabulated by the end of January).

This appears to be a reasonable attempt to improve efficiency, something private companies are forced to do, but governments are typically loathe to even contemplate. So exactly who could be against this refreshing approach to better government? Specifically, who could be against it to such a passionate extent they'd put a hectoring, berating sign in their own front yards? According to the Stillwater Gazette, it's a group called "The Friends of the Stillwater Water Department". Here is their reasoning for opposing this measure:

While city officials maintain that the merger would save the city as much as $172,000 per year and make water services more efficient, a recorded message at the group's local phone number articulates its philosophy: "if it ain't broke don't fix it."

"I think this issue a matter of trust," said Don Empson, Friends of the Water Department treasurer. "I don't think the city will do a better job than the Water Department. We already know the Water Department does an excellent job, why change that?"

The Charter Commission should have better "tested the water before making a recommendation that many people are against" and that "is costing taxpayers a lot of money," Empson said. The debate is costing taxpayers at least $15,000 - including the cost to the city to conduct the special election and to pay consultants who studied the issue.

Money isn't the bottom line for Empson. "Service and quality are more important than saving money," he said.

They offer nothing more than a passionate defense of the status quo and of wasteful government spending, which is not exactly a compelling case to the average citizen. Unless maybe you work for the Water Department. Seems to me "The Friends of the Stillwater Water Department" should more appropriately be called "The Friends, Relatives and Other Dependents of the Redundant Capacity". (Of course, I have no proof of this. My self imposed standard of "perfunctory research" prevents me from doing any actual legwork. But I suspect my suspicions are, per usual, right on target.)

Given the high probability that these advocates are nothing more than gravy train riding government employees with an entitlement mentality who unyieldingly vote Democratic, if I lived in Stillwater, the sign in my yard would read "Long Haired Freaky People Need Not Apply-Vote YES”.

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