Most people are familiar with the famous quote, usually attributed to Ben Franklin, that people should not be “pennywise and pound foolish,” which has always been understood to mean being careful about small amounts of money but not about large amounts – often especially referring to some policy or expenditure that is made to save a small amount of money now, but could well cost a large amount of money in the future.
We’re not sure there’s an adage – from Ben Franklin or anyone else – for the upside-down budgetary philosophy in Elon, however, which apparently translates to something like “waste a little, waste a lot.”
But the town council was on a roll in spending – in our judgment, squandering – town taxpayers’ precious tax dollars Monday night.
The town had heretofore resisted spending any tax dollars to join Burlington’s Link Transit bus system. In the past, free rides on the university’s BioBus had always been viewed as sufficient.
But Monday, the council decided to part with $34,292 from the town’s savings to offset the cost for the town to join the bus system and establish six bus stops within town limits during the next fiscal year.
Then, inexplicably, the council decided to spend tax dollars ($15,000) for a part-time town employee to oversee a private farmers’ market that operates a mere four hours per week during about two-thirds of the year (more or less spring through fall).
Now neither is a large amount of money in the grand scale of local government spending, even in a small town like Elon.
Still, it seems to us Elon’s council members, and residents, shouldn’t be surprised when there’s no money to do something that residents might really feel is important after the council has squandered almost $50,000.
No explanation was offered as to why the town should join the bus system now or why the university’s free BioBus is no longer an adequate method for public transportation.
But even more incredibly ridiculous and mystifying, in our book, was the decision to spend resources on such an infrequent event as a weekly farmers’ market.
Now pardon us if we’re missing something; but the way we understand how farmers’ markets work is that local people who grow crops – or have baked goods, crafts, or other wares to sell – simply show up at the designated time and place (four hours each Thursday afternoon on a corner in Elon) to sell them.
They can make themselves a little booth (with or without a tent), or set up a table, and transact their business with willing customers who come to buy eggs, vegetables, or other seasonal goodies.
There is absolutely nothing about the process that should necessitate any government involvement whatsoever, and especially not some part-time Elon town bureaucrat who is, ostensibly, going to “oversee” the process.
Give us a break.
The voice of almost reason on both items Monday belonged to Monti Allison, the town councilman who tried to raise a warning flag or two about both expenditures.
But, alas, his opposition collapsed in the midst of the stampede by his colleagues to spend more money and grow the town’s bureaucracy – and bust its budget.
At least with the bus service, he speculated, “we’ll know if this is a service that the town’s residents will use,” Allison told the rest of the council on Monday. “We’ll try it for a year, and if the ridership is low, we’ll have our answer.”
(We hate to add into his evaluation, however, that even with low ridership – see Burlington and Gibsonville experiences over past years – doesn’t mean a municipality won’t continue to waste its expenditures on the bus system. Even free rides have done little to improve Link Transit’s very low ridership numbers.)
Similarly, Allison was a lone skeptic, who questioned whether a farmers’ market once run by volunteers was even worthy of a new staff-level position.
“I find it hard to imagine what that person would do for 20 hours [a week to supervise a 4-hour farmers’ market held one half-day a week],” Allison told the rest of the group. Amen.
Somehow though, there’s something especially clarifying about that equation: it’s proposed to take five times the bureaucratic hours to supervise an event that will exist for a mere four hours per week.
We imagine most Elon taxpayers, even those who enjoy going to the farmers’ market (whether to buy or sell) will find it equally hard to see how that’s a good deal for the town.