Despite good effort, Rep. Peter DeFazio’s (D-OR) bill seeking to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools or “county payments” program did not pass. Secure Rural Schools will expire at the end of this month and DeFazio believes our rural counties will be thrown into chaos. The NY Times reports that the national average $4 per gallon price of gas has hit rural America the hardest closing small stores, farms and restaurants and raising unemployment. Gas accounts for up to 21% of monthly living expense in rural counties compared to 2.2% in urban areas.

Right now cities and counties, including Coquille are preparing their final operating budgets for the next fiscal year and it would be in everyone’s best interest to assess whether budget planning took into account these stark economic conditions. One way to do this is to obtain detailed copies of the budgets and the rationale, cost benefit analysis (CBA), if there is one, justifying each line item. Then, as a responsible concerned citizen attend the annual budget meeting and raise any concerns. If there is not a CBA, ask why and demand that one be done by a qualified outside source.

Annual budget meetings also afford a wonderful opportunity to assess county and city management performance. There is a common dilemma in management referred to as the principal-agent problem. When principals, in Coquille it is the citizens, or more accurately, the city council, hire an agent, in this case a city manager to run the daily affairs of the city how does the principal with an information disadvantage grade the performance of the agent? How can we be assured that the agent has the same interests as the principal?

Businesses have multiple economic barometers to grade their management performance and these can often be applied to some extent to public management as well. Municipalities can look at whether the streets, sewers, water and other essential services are adequately maintained. Does the city staff properly train their staff? Is the city helpful to the public and organized? These and many other methods can measure management performance.

In business, management may also be graded on efficiency. It isn’t enough to just do a passable job the agent must make optimal decisions, maximize benefits. Shareholders rely on many CBAs and financial audits to offset the information disadvantage the agent has over the principal.

City and county budgets require just such scrutiny, now more than ever. In economics there is a term, opportunity costs, relating to how else money might have been spent. The City of Coquille is proposing another police department increase, up to 34% of the general fund. A cost benefit analysis should be done, if it hasn’t already, to determine what the lost opportunity costs really are, how else our tax dollars might be better spent, particularly in times like these, before the city council approves more of the same.

The City of Coquille has taken a hard stance on sharing public information with the public. No copies of the city or its departments’ policy and procedures manuals are available at the library. Obtaining copies of records and ordinances requires a lengthy procedure and may costs hundreds of dollars disenfranchising the average citizen from participating in their own governance. Principal-agent theory states that demand revealing control mechanisms be in place that do not allow the agent to gain view of the demand schedule. This allows the principal a more accurate view of the information in its pristine state.

In Coquille, city management employs the reverse control system and brings to mind the recent words of Bill Moyers regarding a representative government. “Extremes of wealth and poverty cannot be reconciled with a truly just society…When the state becomes the guardian of power and privilege to the neglect of the people who have neither power nor privilege we can no longer claim to have a representative government.”