2003-05-02 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart Mirsky

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart Mirsky

A Smokescreen For Spending?

Despite the looming budget crisis, the New York City Health Commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden, recently announced a $2.5 million campaign to aid smokers to kick the habit by offering a free quit-smoking packet to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis. Like Mayor Bloomberg, a reformed smoker, Dr. Frieden is a strong anti-smoking advocate. But some have raised questions as to the advisability of such costly new programs when the city is facing continuing budget cuts that will need to be addressed by tax increases, service reductions and/or layoffs. Sure the amount allocated for this new program is a drop in the proverbial bucket, but couldn’t it be put to better use in the current crisis? Is this really the time for this kind of service expansion?

Personally, I’ve never been a smoker and don’t particularly like the habit so I have no problem with strong advocacy against it. On the other hand, I’m not very comfortable with the idea of the nanny state, government that is always telling us what we can and cannot do. I know this is not a highly popular view these days but I never liked New York State’s seatbelt laws (although I happen to wear a seatbelt for my own safety) and am not in favor now of the draconian ban on smoking in commercial establishments that has become the law, courtesy of this Mayor and his Health Commissioner.

But the issue is not merely one of government over-expansion and intrusiveness (although it is that too). It is a matter of how government itself functions. The nanny state means big and growing government as those in power find more and newer ways to intervene in our lives. Of course you can’t do that without growing the various organs of government and for that you need funds. The present anti-smoking program by the city’s Health Department, for instance, involves hiring additional inspectors, to enforce the new citywide ban, as well as paying for the freebies that must be purchased, packaged and mailed to requesters. It also includes costs for back-office staff to perform "outreach" and respond to requests for the "free" packages. Although I have no access to the agency’s budget for all this, I will bet you that the true costs will turn out to be well in excess of the quoted amount.

And this is really the crux of the problem when city government grows to the sky like this. Costs are never really known or properly accounted for. For every dollar publicly reported, a significant multiple of that is buried in ancillary costs and, precisely because it is "buried," wasted, more often than not. It is wasted in salaries for employees who don’t operate at full capacity or in a top-loaded management structure. It is wasted in the purchase of unnecessary goods and services. It is wasted in an inefficient purchasing process that does nothing to incentivize cost-effectiveness beyond forcing group buys that may involve poorly negotiated "requirements contracts" and/or the acquisition of substandard goods. (Poor quality cleaning supplies, for instance, a very simple example, will result in the need for more frequent cleanings and the use of overtime to fund these, more than offsetting any gains). In fact, there are innumerable hidden costs. Some city agencies, for instance, appear to spend nearly as much time moving their staffs and programs around, from site to site, as they spend performing their mandated programmatic functions. Each such move, of course, is costly since it involves disruptions to programs, outlays for moving personnel, renovations to the new (and, not infrequently, the vacated) space, and purchases of brand new (and costly) furniture because the old stuff has been deemed too drab or old-fashioned to be retained. (There are often added costs for unnecessary rentals of privately owned space along with operating costs and lost revenue for city-owned space that is left vacant or underutilized).

If agencies moved their staff once every 5 years, say, this might not be such a big deal. But some agencies play what looks like an annual game of musical chairs with their organizations and so costs mount up. Often programmatic funds are tapped to cover these costs although you would never see this reflected in the programs’ reported figures. The problem is not just that the nanny state is intrusive but that it requires bigger and bigger government which, given the lack of accountability within the system, leads to frivolous use of taxpayer dollars. And this means overspending in both fat and lean times, leading to inevitable budget deficits and the consequent demands for ever-increasing taxes.

Anti-smoking as an information initiative is a good thing, although it should not become the new Prohibition (which is where it now seems to be going). But as an example of government getting beyond itself it is the tip of a very problematic iceberg, the beginnings of another new and growing government initiative which will not only butt its nose into our personal lives, but will charge us for doing this at a rate whose true cost no one in this city can really monitor . . . or seems willing to control.

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