ACCOUNTING FOR PUBLIC SERVICES
by Marylaine Block
A few weeks ago I wrote about GASB 34, the new accounting standard for public agencies. I thought it was entirely reasonable that since we are spending the public's money, we should be asked to give a businesslike account of how we use it. In fact, I thought we should start making a point of discussing the return we deliver on public investment.
But turnabout is fair play. We live in an era where disdain and even mockery of government, its employees, and the services they provide, are prevalent. When this attitude is widespread, it can hardly help increasing the likelihood that profit-maximizing companies will see tax-avoidance as the most rational strategy.
And that would be a pity, not just because it increases the tax burden on the rest of us, and not just because it could cut into the government services we receive as individuals. It would be counterproductive for business as well, because diminished tax revenues make it more difficult for governments to provide essential services business relies on.
So let me tell you about a pipe dream I have. I'd like to see businesses use accounting standards that acknowledge all the public services they make use of every day. I'd like to force them to realize that they are as dependent on government subsidies as any bureaucrat or welfare recipient.
I would like to see business executives acknowledge the tax dollars spent to bring water and sewer services out to new plants and office complexes they've built in the middle of nowhere. It would also be nice if they'd acknowledge the money spent by local and regional governments to provide them with police, fire and ambulance services, and the roads that bring their employees to work and their supplies to their factories and offices.
I'd like them to acknowledge the subsidy our tax dollars provide them in the form of highways, ports, inland waterways, airports, and air traffic control, as well as in the form of the government-created internet which allows them to do some business without ever leaving home. I'd like executives in western states to acknowledge that without tax-funded dams and reservoirs that provide water, the cities and businesses they've built in the desert could not survive.
I'd like to see them admit that the public picks up the tab to clean up the messes some businesses have created and walked away from, environmental damage caused by hazardous wastes, toxic spills, and effluent discharges into local waterways. I want them to acknowledge the resources they've extracted from public land that belongs to all of us and to generations that haven't been born yet, and the damage done in the process.
I'd like to see businesses acknowledge the value of a workforce educated primarily in public schools, universities, and in some cases, community colleges that have tailored job-related training to the specific needs of area businesses. I'd like to see businesses account for their use of research funded by government agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, or funded by public universities -- especially when businesses like drug companies sell products based on that tax-funded research back to the public at hugely inflated prices. I'd like to see them acknowledge the value of the libraries that purchase, preserve, and organize that research, and then supply it on demand when businesses need it.
I'd like to see executives acknowledge the extent to which they rely on government-collected data: census data, economic statistics, databases, maps, climate information, and financial data. I'd like to see them account for their use of the legal system which enforces compliance with their contracts, adjudicates their disputes, and awards and protects their patents and copyrights (if anything, too zealously). I want them to account for their use of our consulates and embassies and government agencies that protect and promote their business abroad.
You see, if business executives had to use this kind of accounting system, they might be forced to realize that, no matter how great their ideas and achievements, they didn't do it alone. They drew on the long legacy of shared public resources -- a legacy we are all obligated to replenish. They might even come to understand the value of paying their fair share.
A pipe dream, like I said. But a good one, don't you think?
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This is the first curse of the modern librarian: tough love hurts. Still, it's a necessary pain. Too few people understand that library services aren't really free--like all government services, they're just pre-paid . And as a profession, we haven't done a good job explaining to the public that books do not magically fly onto shelves, librarians and other library employees do not work for the sheer fun of it, and Web sites do not fix their own broken links. In large part due to the very factors that make us special--particularly our strong service orientation and our keen interest in the public good--we are all too expert at "making do," and that has made us easy targets for cuts.
Karen G. Schneider. "Tough Times Call for Tough Love." Free Range Librarian, September, 2002. http://lii.org/search/file/frl0902
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