ONE IRRESPONSIBLE act tends to lead to others, and Richland County Council is on the brink of falling into that pattern as it considers borrowing money to, in effect, staff new and expanded parks that never should have been constructed.
The borrowed money would not go directly toward staff and operational costs; the Recreation Commission wants to use the $1 million it proposes borrowing each year to cover routine maintenance, thereby freeing up money in its regular budget to hire staff and equip new parks.
But this is a shell game, designed to fund operations with money the county obviously doesn’t have. Whether you’re a government or an family, you don’t borrow money to pay for ongoing expenses. When you do, it means you’re spending at a clip you can’t afford or that you have planned poorly, or both.
In Richland County’s case, it’s both. When the council agreed in 2008 to let the Recreation Commission borrow $50 million for park improvements, it knew there was no way to pay for staffing and equipping one new park and major renovations and expansions at 16 other facilities. That’s because the dedicated property tax that funds county recreation is capped by state law, making it impossible to add those costs to the budget. Yet neither the Recreation Commission nor the council devised a funding plan.
Now that some improved parks are coming on line, the Recreation Commission is asking County Council to produce a miracle — at taxpayers’ expense.
It was the council’s initial ill-advised decision to OK the improvements that put taxpayers in this predicament. The council had every reason to say no: $50 million was too much, and the borrowing plan required increasing property taxes at a time when there were more pressing needs.
On top of that, the Recreation Commission is an unaccountable, unelected panel appointed by the state legislators who represent the county. If this were a county department — and it should be — the council would have more resources, more latitude and more political justification to move dollars around and make adjustments to address this funding dilemma.
It’s true that the Recreation Commission is halfway through its building campaign, and a plan needs to be in place to ensure that the new facilities can operate properly. But the taxpayers aren’t the place to start. The council should reject the reckless proposal to borrow money for routine maintenance and work with the Recreation Commission to find alternatives. Those might include other funding methods or operating parks at reduced hours, delaying some openings and even delaying construction.
We know those aren’t appealing, and perhaps some aren’t even possible, but the council and the Recreation Commission put themselves — and taxpayers — into this no-win situation with their irresponsible stewardship. It’s their job to solve this problem without being even more irresponsible.