On parks, a word of caution

July 18, 2014 

For the record, we have no qualms with Clayton’s quest to become Johnston County’s premier community for active families. The town’s community center and its burgeoning parks and greenways are excellent tools for recruiting families and the companies that employ them. Just as important, because parks and greenways foster physical fitness, Clayton’s quest is good public policy, and it has the virtue of being passive rather than coercive.

Neither do we mind the huge sums that Clayton will spend to build the many parks and greenways now in the planning pipeline. Assuming the town borrows the money needed to build the parks and greenways, that means families here today and those that come later will share in their costs. That is how it should be. That is how Johnston County builds schools.

But we hope Clayton leaders are mindful that their parks and greenways will have costs long after the capital debts are paid. They will, for example, require maintenance and repairs, from the mowing of ball fields to replacing broken swings to fixing greenway potholes. Likewise, more parks and more parks programming will require more people in such departments as parks and recreation and public works. While in the town’s employ, those people will earn salaries and benefits, including free health insurance. In retirement, they will enjoy pensions and continued generous health benefits. Taxpayers will shoulder most of the burden.

For the budget year that began July 1, Clayton leaders boasted that they were able to add 10 employees without raising property taxes. (The town had to let employees go at the height of the recession.) But what’s possible today might not be possible tomorrow, and newspapers are replete with stories of cities and towns crippled by the cost of their pension and benefit obligations. Such cities are curbing essential services such as police protection to pay obligations to people who no longer work for them.

Again, we don’t want to rain on Clayton’s park parade. But we trust town leaders will be wise when it comes to growing government, lest Clayton one day reach the point where it can no longer build and maintain parks because it is paying too many former park employees.

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