Thursday, December 15, 2011

Trends in Government Services-Less for More

User fees and service fees are becoming a wide spread trend in the delivery model for government services. While there was a time that I advocated for such fees, now I am recanting based upon two points of objection. The first is the notion that government is a not for profit enterprise. The second is that whatever government does should provide a general benefit and be paid by general taxes.

Taking the second point, first, for discussion. Without delving into an arguement to parse each and every function for its proper inclusion as a general benefit suitable to be a be government service, let's stipulate that what we do receive all qualify. I don't agree that they all do. Its just that this discussion goes to methods of paying for them.

Very quickly and simply, if a government service is provided on a fee for use basis this means that the taxpayers pay to staff and equip the agency providing the service but, without the fee the service wouldn't be delivered. This makes little sense except as an admission that the service isn't provided as a general service but targets a specific group. Take toll roads and courts, for instance. While both are open to the public, only users pay fees to use them. The prevailing wisdom is that these services benefit all, even those who do not directly use them. Who wants criminals untried or their goods undelivered. or unable to commute to work?

Going to the first objection, that government should not be involved in for profit endeavors.
Whether or not the purpose of a fee is to make a profit or to subsidize a department, if the service is considered properly delivered by a government agency, the unstated premise is that the service somehow is connected to the general welfare and not a subsidization of a special interest group. If, OTOH, the government imposes fees in order to subsidize the taxpayer at the expense of the user, this gives rise to a challenge that the staffing and equipping of the delivering agency is a taxpayer subsidy to a special interest group. If this is the argument the government wants to make, then the proper mechanism for delivery of the service is through a competitive, private, for profit endeavor.

One way governments have recognized this dichotomy of function (general welfare service) and recipient (subsidized special interest) is to contract out the service to a private company. This is a close proximation to what they ought to be doing. I take exception to long term, monopolistic contracts, though. The benefits of competition are lost when the ink dries. Contracts should be short term and/or divided along some lines like geographical areas.

Parks are a good example. Open to the public. Purchased, equipped, staffed and maintained by general taxes, they are often accessible by fee. Additionally, some users and locations are fee exempt, others pay a hefty amount.

This scheme of delivering government services is Naut Right.

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