It’s too easy to be generous with other people’s money
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Saturday, November 1, 2008

On Tuesday, in addition to voting for our next President, Johnson County voters will vote on a $20 million bond and its accompanying increased taxes.

The bond’s supporters propose that the $20 million be used for 20 years to purchase land north and east of North Liberty for parks and for conservation of wetlands. This sounds nice, but can we afford the cost, and is the bond the best way to achieve this goal?

Proponents insist that the bond will “only” cost taxpayers about $26 per year (“only the cost of a large coffee each month” – it’s easy to be flippant about other people’s money). But that $26 is on top of the other $2,000 or so already paid in property taxes by the average homeowner.

And it’s on top of (on average – many pay much more) $14,200 in various federal and state taxes – an amount sure to increase after Washington’s disastrous $800 billion bailout package. And this is at a time when most people are cutting spending due to the coming recession.

We can’t do much individually about Washington’s mistakes, but we certainly can have an effect at the local level. We can deny the county government the additional $26, especially since the county also has more than $100 million in new buildings on the radar.

I’m not suggesting that conservation is not an important goal. But is deeding more land to government the best way to protect it anyway? Governments are hardly the best protectors of land and resources: countries with communist governments that own all the land always head the list of the world’s most egregious polluters and resource-depleters.

Ours is not a communist government, of course, but even democratic governments are simply not as accountable as private groups. We think we can write laws that will prevent misuse of public lands, but laws can be changed, and we have little recourse if an official and cronies engage in misuse, because we cannot sue government. If enough people are outraged, we can eventually vote the offenders out of office, but by then the damage is done.

In contrast, private conservation groups like our own Johnson County Heritage Trust can be held to strict standards, because they can be sued for breaching contracts. This is why many conservation groups now understand that the best way to ensure the future of unique and fragile areas is to buy those areas directly.

Many of us agree that parks are an asset to our neighborhoods, that wetlands are important to protect. If you believe these things are important, please donate generously to the Johnson County Heritage Trust, which already protects 219 acres.

But please donate your own money. It’s easy to be generous with other people’s money, especially when we can justify it as being “for their own good”, but that is the wrong way to accomplish the right things.

The Trust will need to work hard to convince people to donate money and land, harder than it would to convince the voting minority to use government to force everyone to “donate”. But noble goals achieved by hard work and the ability to convince others of their value – that’s the American way.