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Opinion

May 28, 2014

All money spent by government comes from taxpayers — we must use it prudently

While serving in Afghanistan I worked in a dusty tent with a floor made of wood pallets covered with plywood. My desk was made of crates and lumber, and under the circumstances I found it to be more than adequate.

My commander insisted we buy new desks. His logic was there was plenty of money in the Air Force Central Command coffers and because we were in a combat zone we could get whatever we wanted with very little trouble. As a matter of fact, that mentality prevailed throughout the theater. “We might as well buy it — the money is there. What do you care? It’s not your money,” was a common refrain. I told my boss I thought it was a waste of taxpayers’ money and as a matter of principle I would under no circumstances get rid of my rustic desk.

A month or so later my supply sergeant dropped in to tell me my new desk was over in supply and he would have it delivered as soon as it was taken out of the box. I told him not to bother uncrating it. I really was mad when I found out the desk cost $800 plus whatever the cost was to ship it from the United States. I took great pride in never taking that desk out of the box and, if lucky, when our forces draw down in Afghanistan it will get sent back to a base at home as opposed to ending up as a dinner table in some Afghan’s mud hut.

One of the things I found to be disturbing when I was in the military was how easy it was for some of those in charge to spend taxpayers’ money. I was mortified when at the end of the fiscal year there was always a mad dash to spend as much as possible to ensure we could get more money the next year. As a leader I felt I had an obligation to be a good steward of taxpayers’ money. I also insisted that those who worked for me did the same. I could not justify taking money or spending money simply because it was available, especially when the things we purchased were not essential for the mission or for the welfare of the troops.

At my first school board meeting I asked a question about an expenditure of roughly $2,000 for a one-day conference at the Days Inn. The explanation was given, and then I was told in so many words not to worry because it was Title I money (federal money provided to meet the needs of the educationally deprived). My reply was, no you are wrong — it is taxpayers’ money. And herein lies the conundrum; not only school districts but cities, counties, states and the federal government have no problem spending our money.

The justification for spending becomes even more twisted when the money being spent comes from grants or some other outside source. Twenty-one million for a county building project? No problem, we’ll get reimbursement from the state. Thousands of dollars for technology? Don’t sweat it — we’re getting a grant. New floor and furniture for these offices? No big deal, we already had it in the budget. The reality is that no matter how you spin it (and believe me, there is plenty of spin) all money spent by government bodies comes from the citizens and we as leaders have a duty to use it prudently.

Lastly, I was humbled by the members of the community who thanked me and those on the board who did not vote for a tax increase in the preliminary budget. I received several cards, letters and phone calls, and it seemed that no matter where I was in public someone always walked up and said thank you. Their message was loud and clear and their expectations for us as public servants even clearer. The money belongs to the electorate and we are obligated to ensure it is not spent frivolously.

John Amato is a member of the Crawford Central School Board, a Meadville businessman and a veteran.

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