Investing or borrowing trouble?
A quick check of cell phone GPS this week revealed a cold, hard truth: We’re still in Marion County. Scotty hasn’t been resurrected from reruns and beamed us into Coffey County.
Our reality check was needed after we learned about proposals for a multimillion-dollar sports facility and a potentially as costly new health department building.
If right now we were sipping our favorite caffeinated beverage in Coffey’s county seat, Burlington, which this week won the economic development equivalent of a Megabucks jackpot, proposals such as these would have been no-brainers.
But unlike Burlington — a city about the size of Hillsboro and one that, like Marion, is nestled between two lakes — we didn’t just learn that we soon would be home to an ultra-high-tech, billion-with-a-B-dollar manufacturing facility that will bring literally thousands of very high-paying jobs to our community.
There’s no denying that the sports and health proposals that came out last week would be valuable. Marion’s stadium leaks into its locker rooms and concession areas. The health department is being evicted and, as COVID-19 proved, needs to be robust.
But these are hardly the only or even most pressing needs for Marion and Marion County.
Just because one round of borrowing — for Marion’s gorgeous performing arts and sports and aquatics centers — is wrapping up doesn’t mean we automatically should renew debt of the same magnitude.
We might be able to keep our monthly payments the same, but it’s not exactly smart to celebrate finally paying off a credit card by maxing the card out on new purchases.
If you run a business or balance a checkbook, you know it generally is prudent to go into debt only in emergencies or when what you plan to buy will generate revenue or cut costs.
We borrow to buy houses so we don’t throw money away on rent. We borrow to buy equipment because it might save on labor or give us a new product to sell.
The performing arts center and especially the aquatics portion of the sports and aquatics center were supposed to lure new residents, impressed with facilities available for their kids.
That hasn’t exactly happened, and we can’t imagine anyone deciding now to relocate here because of concession stands, locker rooms, pickle ball courts, or yet another in the county’s burgeoning number of venues available to be rented out for private functions.
Venues seem to be like toothbrushes. Everyone wants his or her own, without having to share. But we have plenty of party venues. And, with two gymnasiums already, the schools don’t need a special court for pickleball, especially since one of the beauties of pickleball is that it can be played on all sorts of courts, including existing basketball, tennis, and maybe even handball courts.
It’s pretty much the same with the health department. Driving up the cost of its proposal is the need for a variety of specialized medical facilities, every one of which already seems to be available — and not at all overused — at both St. Luke Hospital in Marion and Hillsboro Community Hospital.
State law allows counties our size to contract out their entire health departments to hospitals, giving the hospitals needed revenue and avoiding duplication of spending for facilities that already exist. Has this even been considered?
We’re not opposed to either of the plans — particularly if Scotty would show up and transporters were real.
But when we look at streets and roads in disrepair, when we ponder how much revitalization is needed for substandard housing and storefronts, when we look at the sad state of repair of sidewalks and the even-widening gaps in what used to be tree-lined neighborhoods, we have to question priorities.
When we attend meetings about planning for the future, we see all sorts of opportunities for true investment in the future, including such things as expanded vocational and technical courses, which promise to have a return on investment that isn’t measured in towel snaps and bags of popcorn.
It’s time, as those planning meetings suggest, for our communities to come together and develop priorities for investing in the future, not just in creature comforts or duplicated services of today.
But that requires openness among those making proposals and engagement among the rest of us in being willing to speak out about prioritizing spending and debt to only those things most needed or most likely to justify their cost.
— ERIC MEYER
Last modified Feb. 22, 2023