The Bangor City Council is currently debating the purchase of a fireboat. Our discussions demonstrate why the national debt ceiling crisis is so difficult to resolve. As citizens we like “free” money from the federal government, but we protest the taxes we pay in order to receive it.
The issue: The Bangor Fire Department has received an allocation of $184,000 from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase a 25 foot fire and rescue boat for use along Bangor’s four-mile waterfront.
This is a lot of money for a small boat with a marginal role to play in our security. But, more significantly, is this the way we want our government to be spending our tax dollars?
Our fire department has adopted specifications from cities with more complex waterfronts. They call for a sturdily built aluminum boat capable of going at least 30 mph with a cabin for four, a rescue door and a 1,000 gallon per minute fire pump.
The department plans to dock the boat at the Bangor waterfront in the summer and have it available on a trailer in Brewer or Hampden when the river is ice bound. It will supplement but not replace a smaller rescue boat that has served Bangor adequately in the past.
The boat’s mission is to rescue people who may have fallen or jumped into the river, help the Coast Guard with toxic spills, put out fires on pleasure boats moored in the Penobscot River and fight fires ashore. It is of note that the Army Corps of Engineers will not allow Bangor to place moorings in the river and the last major fire in which a fire boat would have had undisputed use was in 1911.
The same day the council reviewed the Fire Department’s proposal, the Bangor Daily News headlined Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to trim Medicaid roles by 30,000 people to save money. The irony of spending a large sum of money on a boat for use in rare (although important) emergencies versus the tangible health care that could be delivered to some Maine citizens for an equal sum is inescapable.
The federal government faces a potential shutdown by those disturbed by its wastefulness. Many aspects of government spending have been targeted — education, health care, infrastructure, veteran’s pensions and environmental protection. Many believe that government bureaucrats do a poor job at allocating resources.
But then we have Homeland Security with its large budget, a powerful and vocal constituency and the ability to hand out its money with few restraints. While we complain about government in general, how can we not love this part of the government that gives to us so generously and asks little in return?
The Bangor City Council spends tax dollars carefully. There is no chance that we would approve $184,000 for a fireboat when we have had to cut so much else.
But, by the curious logic of modern accounting, since the federal government has already “allocated” this money to be spent, Bangor must spend it or some other city will. We preach about wastefulness but look the other way when we have an opportunity to gorge at the feeding trough. As we prepare to feast without considering the ethics of our actions, we are also feeding the monster that we have created. Bangor has unwittingly become part of the problem.
So what should we do? Bangor could use a good rescue boat, but one appropriate to our needs. Would we not do nearly as well with a Maine-built fiberglass boat for half the price?
As citizens we need to be watchdogs for excess at all levels — local, state and federal. Will the money not spent on the fireboat go towards Medicaid recipients? No. Will Bangor be contributing in its small way to our nation’s economic crisis by spending this money? Yes.
Bangor should spend what is required for our reasonable safety and well-being. If the federal government offers us more money than we need we should return it, with thanks and a strong request to our congressional delegation that it be spent elsewhere or returned to us as taxpayers. We need our government to be dedicated to our common good. “Free” money is not free.
Geoff Gratwick is a member of the Bangor City Council.