Wednesday, November 21, 2001
By RICK BENDER
Labor Council, AFL-CIO
For the past twenty years, public servants have been ridiculed and attacked as inefficient, lazy government bureaucrats. The horrible events of Sept. 11, when terrorists took over our skies and turned our planes into bombs, brought home some basic truths that it is my fervent hope citizens will recognize and respect.
At last count, 343 New York firefighters and dozens of police officers were missing and presumed dead in the World Trade Center wreckage. Those public servants had rushed to the scene first, choosing to risk their lives to save the lives of strangers they had never met. In fact dozens of emergency services workers and EMTs responded to the disaster and dozens were also killed and injured. Thousands of safely evacuated workers and visitors in those doomed twin skyscrapers owe their very lives to the hundreds of public servants who put themselves in harm's way to provide an escape.
Hundreds more municipal, state and federal workers joined the hunt for survivors and the rescue efforts in the days following the disaster. The around-the-clock efforts to dig through the remains will leave those workers with nightmarish memories for years to come. We know that these efforts will cause lasting stress because that's what happened to the rescue and recovery workers following the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. In Oklahoma City, public servants were the target of Tim McVeigh's hate. In the terrorist attacks on September 11, the targets were our very country.
For far too long, the bile spewed out about our government and government employees has caused a growing cynicism and disconnect of citizens from their own local, state and federal government. Lower voter participation, skimpy turnout at public hearings and lack of interest in civic gatherings are all signs of this trend. The distrust and disdain expressed almost daily on talk radio, in our coffee shops and over our backyard fences are part of a long American tradition of independence and skepticism about politics and politicians. But as Thomas Jefferson said, "That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part." Or, as author Garry Wills wrote recently, "It's not healthy for a society if the people hate their own government."
Perhaps our cynicism will transform into true patriotism during the current mobilization in response to the terrorists. We've waved thousands of flags and lit millions of candles in public demonstrations of our grief and determination in the wake of the massacres at the World Trade Center and Pentagon. So I hope that we will also learn a few lessons.
Public safety cannot be guaranteed if government "contracts out" its duty to the lowest bidder. Competititve pressure to make more profit compromises costly public safety measures. The frightening state of our airport screening security is a case in point. Airlines contract this work to various "security companies" who hire workers without training and provide little training for these highly sensitive jobs. They pay little more than minimum wage, with few benefits. In other countries, airport security is a professional position and usually a government responsibility. Needless to say, it costs those foreign governments more to provide more safeguards. But the question we need to ask ourselves is, have we made a mistake in allowing the airlines to pay for the airport security at a time when competition on ticket prices encouraged airlines to cut costs.
Consider some other examples. Consider the costs of providing decent public health safeguards in a world where terrorists might try and resort to mass poisonings or a biological attack. For the past several years, our state and local governments which fund our county public health agencies, have cut and squeezed dollar after dollar from public health budgets as tax cuts have stripped our government's ability to pay for basic services.
Voters in this fall's election will once again be confronted with a fundamental choice. Initiative 747 will limit property tax increases to just 1 percent a year. That limit falls well below basic inflation. There's no question that current local services would have to be cut by cities and counties if I-747 passes. Estimates are that fire districts would suffer the largest single reduction, followed by public hospital districts and emergency medical services districts. City and county road districts would also realize a cut about $150 million over the next five years.
My question to voters in our state is: During a time of national emergency, is it wise to pass an initiative that will require us to cut back on essential public safety and public services? I don't think so. I hope you agree with me.