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Public projects involving taxpayer dollars deserve a healthy dose of skepticism

Boise Mayor Bieter: “Let’s do big things.”

In his State of the City address on Nov. 1, 2017, Mayor David Bieter urged Boiseans, to "aim high in thought and action." He mentioned projects such as a new stadium and main library, and the need to maintain kindness toward one another.
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In his State of the City address on Nov. 1, 2017, Mayor David Bieter urged Boiseans, to "aim high in thought and action." He mentioned projects such as a new stadium and main library, and the need to maintain kindness toward one another.

Robert Duffy, the former Rochester, New York, police chief who had just been elected mayor of the city of about 220,000 people, called for a meeting with my newspaper’s editorial board in January 2006.

Duffy, who would later become lieutenant governor of New York, got right to the point: He was putting the kibosh on Rochester’s city-run fast ferry that had been started by his predecessor and ran between Rochester and Toronto, but ended up being a bit of a boondoggle for the city and its taxpayers.

The fast ferry, when it was first proposed and launched, was met with general fanfare. It was one of those bold, innovative new ideas that generated excitement and interest. And if you believed the projections and promises, it was going to be a money-making endeavor bustling with activity, filled with happy customers spending the day or weekend in Toronto, and attracting private investment.

Unfortunately, while there was plenty of optimism, there wasn’t enough skepticism about its size, its cost and its ridership. For sure, there were skeptics, but eventually, the optimists won the day. The city ordered and purchased a ferry, rehabilitated a lakeside port and launched a ferry service to Toronto. In the end, as the skeptics correctly predicted, not enough people took the fast ferry, and it was a serious money-losing operation.

Having witnessed from a newsroom the beginning, middle and end of the sad saga that was the fast ferry, I learned valuable lessons about the dangers of getting swept up in the unbridled optimism of a city- or otherwise government-sponsored endeavor.

Despite popular belief that we’re a bunch of jaded, cynical, nattering nabobs of negativism, it’s important to keep in mind that newspaper reporters and editors (believe it or not) are human beings who are subject to getting caught up in the good feelings and optimism of a project that’s meant for the public good.

In this case, in hindsight, I wish the newspaper had been more skeptical, raised more alarms and scrutinized more closely the financial projections and promises.

That’s why I think it’s a good thing that the city of Boise is tapping the brakes on a multimillion-dollar library project. It’s easy to get swept up in the glory of the design and the idea of a beautiful structure standing as a shining beacon in Downtown Boise.

During a reporter roundtable on Idaho Matters several months ago, I made mention that the price tag was pretty high — $84 million to more than $100 million. I had friends who had heard me on the radio program and chided me for opposing the library, standing in the way of progress — just for questioning the price tag. It was good-natured ribbing, but it demonstrates that sometimes the harder thing to do is to question a popular, feel-good municipal project.

Whenever tax dollars are being used, I think it’s necessary for the newspaper to be skeptical and questioning. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re opposed to a project, only that taxpayers should go into a project with open eyes and all the information. If, after being given all the information — good and bad — taxpayers still support a project, so be it. If it’s successful, all the better. If it fails, at least we knew the vagaries and hazards ahead of time, and were willing to take the risk.

We should apply the same healthy skepticism to the sports stadium proposal and the Boise streetcar circulator. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do these things; we can probably talk ourselves out of any public project and find reasons not to do just about anything.

Rather, with generous amounts of skepticism and questioning, we can more confidently forge ahead with bold new ventures, knowing that we’ve all done our homework.

Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at smcintosh@idahostatesman.com or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.
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