Taxpayers were better off when local governments were closely watched by local newspapers
ST. CLAIR TWP., Ohio – News reports tell us that the Ohio State Auditor’s Office has put St. Clair Township, a small local government unit, under the status of “fiscal emergency” because it has a budget deficit approaching $200,000.
(St. Clair Township Fiscal Officer Douglas Wheelright), who was elected to office in April of 2012, said the township’s former fiscal officer failed to pay some bills, including some electric payments, and payments owed to the Internal Revenue Service. That – combined with a slow economy and dwindling tax collections – forced the township into a deficit.
This is hardly unusual. Local governmental units across the nation have been struggling with their budgets in recent years. A total of 22 local governments in Ohio are also experiencing state-declared fiscal emergencies.
But a major factor in this particular instance was allegedly sloppy work by the former fiscal officer. That makes us wonder if this is yet another example of what happens when local government is not being monitored.
By monitored, we mean covered on a regular basis by a reporter from a local newspaper. It wasn’t so long ago that nearly all local governmental bodies – city councils, township boards, school boards – pretty much all had a regular reporter assigned to cover their meetings, ask tough questions and shine a light on their activities.
Those lone watchdogs probably did more to guarantee honest and efficient government at the local level than anybody realizes. Local officials watched their step, because they didn’t want to get burned in the newspaper.
Unfortunately the Great Recession killed a lot of newspapers across the nation, and forced the downsizing of most of the others. Veteran reporters were laid off, and if they were replaced, it was usually by inexperienced, low-salary kids just out of college. As a result, few local governments are covered the way they were covered before. The newspapers can no longer afford to assign watchdogs to every little municipality.
But every little municipality handles millions of dollars in tax money every year. With nobody watching, waste and abuse are bound to occur. Was this part of the problem in St. Clair Township? We have no idea. But it will be a growing problem across the nation in coming years, because the Fourth Estate is no longer watching.
Authored by Steve Gunn