This is Part 1 of my Government Sucks series. To begin this series, I want to give you an insider’s view of the municipality that employed me for over twenty-one years, the Town of Oyster Bay.
The Town of Oyster Bay (aka the Town) is located in Nassau County on Long Island, and the services it provides are focused on the following four community needs: roads, sanitation, parks, and zoning. Pretty basic fare for a local government.
I worked for the highway department. Our job was to take care of anything road-related. So in addition to filling potholes, sweeping gutters, and plowing snow, we cut grass, trimmed trees, issued permits, cleaned catch basins, repaired damaged curbs, inspected contracted road work, maintained traffic signs and street markers, and replaced burned-out street lights.
For three years during my highway career, I worked as the foreman of a maintenance crew. I got to see first hand what the guys in the field did. It wasn’t pretty. Here was our typical day of “work”.
- 7:00-7:30 am: I would meet the crew in the shape-up room and tell them what the day’s assignment was. I would also tell each crew member what his role would be in completing the day’s assignment. And every day I performed this ritual, there was much “gnashing of the teeth”. No one ever seemed excited about the opportunity to “serve” the public.
- 7:30-9:00 am: Everyone in the crew, including me, would have an hour and a half to get breakfast, gather the tools, equipment, and materials necessary for the day’s assignment, and get to the job site.
- 9:00-12:00 pm: This was the time allocated to carry out the day’s assignment. On most occasions, we finished the day’s assignment around 11:00 am. Very rarely did we actually labor for three whole hours. And it was even rarer for us to labor beyond three hours. On those extremely rare occasions where we toiled into the afternoon, there was much consternation in the crew. Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat deprived of on-the-clock leisure.
- 12:00-2:30 pm: The crew’s job at this point was to get lunch and stay out of trouble. And by “stay out of trouble”, I don’t mean to suggest that management was concerned about the public’s safety. (The guys in the field had many shortcomings. But few if any were thugs.) No, management was more concerned about hiding our culture of sloth from the public. The last thing it needed was a citizen videotaping a highway employee sleeping in his truck for three hours. So it always coached the guys to keep moving, to never park at some location for more than a half hour. It was one thing to be slothful; it was another thing to flaunt it.
- 2:30-3:00 pm: The last thirty minutes of our work day was dedicated to returning to the yard and putting away whatever tools and equipment that were removed from the yard to complete the day’s assignment.
Observations – Part 1
Where do I begin?
The highway department wasn’t uniformly bad. There were times, most notably during snow storms, in which we did rise to the occasion and provide the taxpayers with exemplary service. But these flashes of greatness were rare. On most days we gave the taxpayers just what I described above—two or three hours of moderate effort. No one worked hard, whether they were in the field or in the office. And most were well aware of the abuse we were heaping upon the taxpayers. That’s why many in the highway department referred to their jobs as “high-class welfare”.
My guess is that the highway department gave the taxpayers fifty cents of service for every dollar it confiscated from them. Most other departments in the Town were just as lame. The one exception was the sanitation department. It gave the taxpayers, in my estimation, sixty or seventy cents of service for every dollar it confiscated from them. And later in this series, I’ll explain the reason for this exception. The important point to digest now, though, is this: the Town of Oyster Bay was not the New England Patriots of municipal government. We provided crummy service and very few of my co-workers cared.
It would be nice to blame management for the culture of sloth that marred the Town’s ability to serve (management defined here as the politicians in charge of the Town and the commissioners they appointed). But that wouldn’t be accurate. Labor was partially to blame as well.
Labor, defined here as me and the rest of the non-appointed worker bees, paid union dues. Some of that dues money went to pay for lobbyists in Albany. Labor also engaged in DIY lobbying. There were always fundraising tickets for sale from the Republican Party (the party that controlled the Town Board), and there were always worker bees eager to purchase them. Why? Why did we give money to politicians? Did we want to eliminate waste? Did we want to reduce the tax burden on our taxpayers? No. Not even close. We gave money to politicians because we wanted cushy jobs with ever increasing pay, benefits, and protections. And that’s largely what we got for our “civic mindedness”.
Observations – Part 2
If any Town politician or commissioner were presented with irrefutable evidence of the sloth described above, I’m sure he or she would give an Oscar-worthy Captain Renault performance (see clip below). He or she would be “shocked” to find goldbricking in the ranks of the Town’s workforce.
But the Town’s politicians and commissioners weren’t stupid. And I find it hard to believe they didn’t know what was going on. I also find it hard to believe they couldn’t crush the culture of sloth if they wanted to. So why was it allowed to exist? Let’s connect the dots.
Every commissioner in the Town was the president of a Republican Club (every hamlet in the Town had its own Republican Club). Every Republican Club was largely made up of Town employees. Town employees who helped elect Republicans to the Town Board, either through grunt work (i.e., stuffing envelopes, ringing doorbells, getting people to the polls, etc.) or campaign donations, got promotions and raises more frequently than Town employees who didn’t. Town employees who helped elect Republicans to the Town Board also got favorable treatment in the workplace. For example, if you weren’t political and you failed a drug test, you were gone. If you were political and failed a drug test, odds were that you would get a second chance.
Again, I have no concrete evidence of perfidy, but I firmly believe there was a malign quid pro quo between management and labor against the taxpayers. Management said to labor in effect: help us stay in power and we’ll see that you have nice, undemanding jobs.
Was my government experience an anomaly? After all, my last day as a “public servant” was over nine years ago. Perhaps the Town has since upped its game tremendously. But let’s assume it hasn’t. Is the Town necessarily representative of all municipalities? Perhaps it’s different elsewhere. Perhaps municipalities in, say, California, Minnesota, or Georgia are much more considerate of the taxpayers they serve. Perhaps they’ve managed to instill a culture of excellence rather than a culture of sloth. Perhaps government at the state and federal level is better as well. Perhaps the Town of Oyster Bay is the only government entity in the land that can’t manage to fill its ranks with heroically selfless individuals, obsessed with delivering quality service to the taxpayers.
But then again, maybe my experience wasn’t an anomaly.
I’ve been studying politics and government for over thirty years. I even have a master’s degree in public administration. And nothing I’ve read or observed informs me that the self-interest on display in the Town of Oyster Bay during my years on its payroll is peculiar to the Town of Oyster Bay. I firmly believe that self-interest is endemic in government and the term “public servant” should be banished from our vocabulary.
Here, then, is the first takeaway from my Government Sucks series.
Reason #1 why government sucks:
People who are employed by government are just as selfish as those who aren’t.