July 25, 2012 10:09:13 AM
I am not picking on Starkville Alderman Roy A. Perkins.
I use him merely as an example of something that seems more and more prevalent these days, and not just among officials and politicians.
This particular example comes from the long-running saga of the Carver Drive drainage issues in Perkins' ward.
Back in May, the Starkville Board of Alderman again took up the issue, with Phylis Benson of the Golden Triangle Planning and Development Partnership outlining a grant request that would have piped and covered the troublesome stretch of Carver Drive.
An hour later, Perkins stood outside the board room, fuming after the Board voted 4-3 not to pursue the grant.
"I just don't understand it,'' Perkins lamented. "All it would have cost is $50,000.''
In fact, the project that the Board voted down would have cost far more than $50,000. The overall projected cost was $940,955.
So how did Perkins compute the cost at $50,000?
The bulk of the cost would be paid for through a $600,000 grant. Throw in $230,955 in "in-kind'' services (basically using city workers and city equipment) and the price tag slips to $110,000. The city had set aside $60,000 in a previous budget for the project. That brought it down to $50,000.
It is that number -- only $50,000 -- that Perkins cited.
Perkins, it should be noted, is a fiscal conservative on the Board. He is often the first to question expenditures. When the Board considered elevating the pay grade for the city clerk's position, it was Perkins alone who objected. He is consistently frugal with the taxpayers' money.
And that's why Perkins' insistence that the doomed Carver Drive proposal would only cost $50,000 is most telling.
As mentioned earlier, Perkins is just an example of a prevailing attitude - grant money is "free money.''
Whether it's refurbishing the Old Highway 82 bridge at the Columbus Riverwalk (an estimated $2.5 million project), filling a ditch or even building a new municipal complex in Maben (price tag: $250,000), a town that hasn't seen a new building of hardly any kind in 40 years, there is always great enthusiasm as long as it is grant money that pays the tab.
Not even Tea Party stalwarts, known for throwing nickels around as if they were manhole covers, find anything to object about in these cases. Hey, it's grant money, after all.
The Israelites of old were supplied with manna from heaven. Today, it's money from heaven in the form of grants. Two-million bucks toward the Old Highway 82 bridge that will be nothing more than a glorified pedestrian path. A quarter-million dollars for a city complex for a scant handful of Maben city employees.
All of these projects would have been laughed off the table if they were funded through city or county budgets.
On the other hand, mentioning the word "grant" to an elected body is like throwing a pork chop to a pack of wolves. Anything goes, as long as it's not taxpayer money.
But if you think about it even for a moment, you realize that grant money is every bit as much taxpayer money as the money that goes into a city's general fund. Our state and federal taxes are the source of all that "free" money. Suddenly, all those bargain deals on things don't look so appealing.
Once you begin to look at it that way, you begin to see the need for a bit more restraint. You wonder how much our state and national debt could be reduced simply by reducing the amount of grant money that is poured into projects that are not really necessary.
There's no free lunch, as everyone knows.
There are no free bridges or buildings, either.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.