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Editorial: Don't rush to spend surplus

Tuesday, August 19, 2014
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The first inclination of government when it has a few extra bucks should not be to spend it.

Those extra bucks come from taxpayers, and they should get the first crack at the money.

So it was a little disturbing when no Saratoga County supervisors raised any objections last week to a proposal by a local open space advocacy organization to add $500,000 to the county budget for open space preservation. The money had been a regular line item in the county budget until 2012, when supervisors decided they couldn't afford it anymore and cut the funding altogether.

But now that the economy has recovered somewhat, the county is sitting on a $20 million surplus. And that $20 million is looking like a baby seal in a shark tank to organizations that want money for their respective causes.

Don't be mistaken; preserving open space and farmland is a worthy goal to maintain a region's quality of life in the face of rampant development. But county supervisors shouldn't be so quick to spend their hard-collected taxpayer money on every worthy cause that approaches them with its hand out.

Somehow in the past two years, Saratoga County has managed to spend nothing on land purchases and conservation easements. Yet the county has not been overwhelmed with applications to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

When you're used to spending money on something, you get used to having it. But it's amazing that when you're forced to do without something, you get used to that, too. You adjust.

That's what county leaders have to keep in mind when deciding how to allocate any surplus.

Instead of the county buying easements or land to protect open space, it could encourage developers to redevelop existing sites so they don't take undeveloped land. Restrictive zoning for specific uses and lot sizes also can be an effective and inexpensive alternative to buying up a parcel with taxpayer dollars and taking it off the market. Think: Is the old approach necessarily still the best approach?

First dibs on any surplus should go to taxpayers. If there's that much money lying around, the county should consider giving some of it back to the people. For instance, counties have returned excess sales tax to towns and villages, which have then redistributed the payment to taxpayers via a local property tax cut.

The second priority should be for necessities. What's looming in Saratoga County's future? A pension bubble? A landfill closure? What kind of condition are the county's aging bridges in? Only after necessities are taken care of should discretionary spending be considered.

Government needs to stop thinking of taxpayers like a bottomless pit of cash to tap. Our leaders instead must take a hard look at any new requests for taxpayer money and actively look for alternatives to spending it.

 
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