This time last year, I was lamenting whether a policy to charge for parking to view the fireworks makes sense.
I again applaud the vision of the city to offer a wonderful fireworks display. I watched it from downtown, and could not help but think how such events enrich us all.
The downtown is a treasure for us all. Its museums, rich history, quaint old buildings and dedicated shop owners give us comfort, even if we do not enjoy the amenities as often as we might.
The new street signs, that are also friendly to our Quebec visitors, have really given the downtown a sense of place.
And, events like the 4th of July parade and fireworks, or the Mayor's Cup sailboat race, bring people, and their wallets, downtown at a rate that seems to be increasing every year.
When we come downtown, businesses know it. With their newfound revenue comes a capacity to pay their property tax, while Clinton County enjoys a flow of sales-tax revenue into its coffers.
Surely, the sales-tax revenue and more easily absorbed business taxes, and the exposure that could attract future visitors, more than cover the cost of the fireworks. Of course, some of that revenue goes to Clinton County, and it may only be imperfectly shared with those who foot the bill for the fireworks.
However, beyond the fiscal reality that there must be income coming in to pay for such things as the annual fireworks, it may make economic sense to provide such a wonderful public good in some circumstances.
Government serves one primary role. It provides us with law and order, roads and bridges, schools and agencies, that could not be efficiently provided by the private sector. Economists call these public goods because all of the public benefits from law and order, transportation infrastructure, and a healthy, legal, and well educated citizenry.
We may complain that government provides too much, or too little, of these goods and services, or they may provide these services less efficiently than we might like. In the final analysis, though, few would want any entity but government to provide for certain services. We want to be sure our police are working for the citizens. It is reassuring that our soldiers are fighting for our country, not mercenaries fighting for a private army.
And, it is reassuring that certain things we all enjoy can be enjoyed freely. If we charged for viewing fireworks, we would necessarily have to deny access to some who could not afford to pay, even if they would enjoy the display. Since it does not cost anything more to have those individuals also enjoy the show, it makes good economic sense to expand the viewership as much as possible.
As a matter of fact, private industry is typically unwilling to provide goods that all can enjoy without paying. You cannot prevent people from enjoying the fireworks from afar, just as you cannot obscure our beautiful mountains or deny access to our great lake.
These goods and services that give us all enjoyment, but will not be provided by the private sector, are the very goods and services that government should legitimately provide. And, just as the private sector cannot extract a price sufficient to make it worth their while, nor can government.
Instead, government is left with the weighty responsibility of determining what we value and providing just the right amount of these goods, efficiently, on our behalf. The citizenry gives government the power to tax so it can do just that. And, it relies on government to be efficient, and to not provide too little or too much of these public goods.
In turn, people come downtown and spend their money. Local businesses thrive, young people are given the sense that this is a great place to live, and our economy is sustained. Businesses, or non-profit organizations, contribute too. Iris's tables on the sidewalk and the street, Thursday night music sponsored by the local arts organizations, and, someday, events at the Strand, all augment the downtown experience. However, it is the amenities the city provides that makes their efforts greater than the sum of the parts.
This is where the vision thing comes in. The city visionaries are the glue that hold an important part of Clinton County character together. This weighty responsibility is not thrust upon the town, nor any one of the towns and villages dotting the county. No, the prize that is downtown is a distinctly city responsibility and city jewel.
Perhaps this responsibility will change someday. Maybe we will all recognize that each of us has an interest and stake in the myriad businesses, events and opportunities that make up the downtown core. Until that day comes, though, we rely on the city to continue to make our downtown experiences as positive as they created on the Mayor's Cup weekend.
Of course, it is difficult to also represent citizens who live outside of a boundary that contains their electorate. This inconvenience is justified, though, by noting that the city's efforts to make the downtown interesting, attractive and accessible also creates precisely the environment that downtown businesses need to thrive. And when downtown businesses thrive, so does the City of Plattsburgh, thanks to patrons from all over the county and the region.
I know our elected officials recognize the need to appeal to those who live outside their political boundary but still spend money inside the city. I am sure that our elected officials also understand the challenge of imagining a city on behalf of us all. Their obligation to us all to create and sustain a vibrant and viable downtown is something for which we should all be grateful.
What I wish they'd said: Clinton County and town legislators, school board members, and councillors. "Yes, the reduced state transfers to cities, towns, school boards and villages will be painful. Obviously, the state has made some difficult and courageous cuts, but it has also passed part of the buck to us. While their effort to share the pain is both understandable and problematic, we will do the right thing with the challenge imposed upon us. The easy way out, of course, is to simply pass the buck still further to taxpayers by raising property and sales taxes. However, in these difficult times, raising taxes or levies is unconscionable. Politicians must be more creative and more responsible than that. After all, if government knows no other policy than to pass the buck, with taxpayers expected to pick up the tab, then we are not doing our job by striving for efficiency. We will not do that to you. Instead, we will dig deep to see where we can make cuts while we preserve those services you value highest."
Colin Read is a professor of economics and finance and former dean of the School of Business and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. His fifth book, "The Rise and Fall of an Economic Empire," will be published by MacMillan Palgrave this fall. He also runs an economic and business consulting company and can be reached through his website www.economicinsights.net.