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RUSSELL - You can never have too many committees

Richard Russell • Jan 26, 2011 at 4:15 PM

During my tenure on the Plymouth Board of Education some 20 years ago, we were faced with budget shortfalls and funding problems. I was new to the board and being relatively young, felt somewhat overwhelmed by what seemed like an angry mob at almost every meeting -- local taxpayers, teachers and parents upset with everything from their most recent real estate tax bill to how much their pay lagged behind other districts to the age of the textbooks used in the classrooms.

During one particularly vocal meeting, we board members were alternately categorized as spendthrifts, cheapskates or incompetents. As the debate raged on about the merits of the newly permitted school income tax, an idea struck me: why not form a committee of local residents to get a consensus of the best direction for funding our school district?

The remaining board members welcomed my brainstorm and after a motion and a second, approved it unanimously. I was congratulated for the inventiveness of my idea by several of my cohorts along with folks from the audience at the meeting. And I lauded myself for being able to deflect the heat of debate away from the board with such aplomb.

As the five members of the committee reported back to the board over the next few weeks, we realized that they were not reaching accord, but were merely digging more and more complaints and frustrations out of the public. After a few more weeks, the board voted to place the income tax on the ballot. The tax issue passed and residents of the Plymouth Local Schools were saddled with a brand new 1 percent income tax the following year, as they have been every year since.

I would still be patting myself on the back for my stroke of genius during that meeting except that I have come to realize that I should be embarrassed because of the dodge we had concocted. What we expected the committee to accomplish was actually the work that we, as elected members of the school board, should have been doing all along.

I was reminded of this foray into bad government last week when I saw a news story stating that the federal government has more than 1,000 committees and advisory panels.

The 74,346 members of all these committees may not have actually solved many problems, but they sure know how to spend money. Ten years ago, they cost us taxpayers $215 million, but they will directly spend more than $400 million during this year.

And out of all those committees, there were only 35 that worked on any kind of government cost savings. Proving that government can always be counted on to expand exponentially, there were 147 new panels assigned last year, with a mere 40 being dismantled.

The committee members work fairly cheap -- an average of $632 each -- spending only a reported $47 million on themselves last year, and many did the work on a volunteer basis. But cost of the staffs for these committees managed to spend $180 million last year, while travel and related expenses ate up another $72 million.

Some of the panels met hundreds of times and some didn't meet at all. It's probably just as well that some of the members stayed home, because the ones that didn't generated more than 800 reports. The hidden costs were the rules, regulations, surveys and reports that they imposed on businesses, individuals and state and local governments.

We can joke about the sincerity of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform that was created by President Barack Hussein Obama in the wake of his signing multiple trillion dollar spending bills, driving our national debt into the stratosphere at $14.06 trillion. And we can scratch our heads wondering about the actual function of the Towing Safety Advisory Committee (a branch of Homeland Security) and what it is they really do.

In describing the overabundance of federal committees, Rep. Jason Cahffetz (R-Utah) said "It's a way to punt a tough question."

That was what I did back in 1990 with the school board. It was bad government because it didn't solve anything.

Tough questions are what we've got, and maybe it's time for our elected leaders -- not a bunch of appointed committees -- to do the work and answer them.

Richard Russell is the Reflector business manager. Reach him at rrussell@norwalkreflector.com.

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