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Experts at budget time

Aug 5, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Increasingly, spenders and consumers see themselves as interchangeable

An increasingly apparent face-off in government at all levels involves those who do the work and those who pay for it

At its basic level, it comes down to two versions of the same question: Does having money make you an expert on what you are buying? Or, does being an expert entitle you to make decisions on money?

Such disagreements have been prominent nationally in scientific and defense issues, statewide in education, and now, locally, in emergency management.

Specifically, the people who provide the day-to-day services of the county ambulance department have just gone through a significant disagreement with the Fremont County commissioners, who must approve funding for that department.

The seesaw discussion had many focal-points -- full-time vs. part-time staffing, fees charged, hours of operation, service at remote outposts, health insurance and other benefits -- but generally it comes down to whether budgeting for the department is better left to the people who will use the money or the people who will provide it.

"I know what we need," says one side.

"I know what we can afford," says the other.

Before long, one side can start to form judgments about the other that may fall outside specific areas of expertise. "They can afford more than they think," says one side.

"This service really isn't necessary," says the other.

Department heads never got to have anything and everything they wanted, but history doesn't immediately recall budget standoffs like these. The funder used to be a bit more deferent to the fund requester. It wasn't a carte blanche system, but a well-argued budget usually stood a pretty good chance, and the holders of purse usually confined their arguments to dollars, not services.

Things are different now. In Cheyenne, legislators without education training, without classroom or school administration experience, and without a track record of success in education policy, have decided they know better than the educators. As fantastically high-paid consultants whisper in their ears, the legislators fancy themselves education experts -- and the new marching orders follow.

In Washington, any number of senators and representatives with no scientific background whatsoever are quick to cry "bad science" when confronted with a position on funding or policy that could prove more costly, either in dollars or votes, than they are comfortable with.

On defense, congressional leaders almost always say key decisions ought to "be left to the commanders on the ground," but the votes they cast at budget time are drastic shapers of what kinds of decisions those commanders can make. We've all seen the congressman who loves to talk like a general.

At the Fremont County level, the divide over the new fiscal year's funding for the ambulance department was wide enough that the longtime department head resigned over it. She had been asked to pare her original budget request a couple of times as commissioners scrutinized her spending plan and, she felt, her vision for ambulance service in the county as well.

A county ambulance budget finally has been passed -- some time after the rest of the county's fiscal year budget was finalized. In the end, commissioners came back in the direction of the former ambulance chief in some areas, but the budget is likely to require dipping further into the department's cash reserve.

This is more a result than a solution, because commissioners already have said a very hard look at the ambulance budget will have to be taken again next year. When that happens, expect this growing divergence between perceived expertise among the payers and perceived fiscal acuity among the consumers to emerge again.

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Fremont County Commission