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Spending per person

Mar 3, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Lander and Riverton rank low on the list, but it's about more than numbers

Are we to be pleased or troubled by the news that among the 18 Wyoming cities with populations of 4,000 of more, Riverton and Lander spend less municipal funding per capita than just about all of them?

As reported recently by staff writer Eric Blom, Riverton ranked 16th on the list, Lander 18th.

Some, no doubt, will take this news as a very good thing indeed. It will demonstrate that local government leaders have got things figured out, that money is not being wasted, that the conservative ideal of the smallest possible government -- at any level -- is the best government.

What, they might ask, does Riverton need to do to get to 17th place on the list.

Others will feel differently. Local government is the closest to the people, and they will say it ought to be more responsive. Being miserly in the face of real public need is not something to be proud of. Government money is the people's money, not meant to be hoarded. Look around either town, and you'll see many places where a few more dollars could really improve the quality of life.

There's a third group to consider -- municipal elected leaders and paid staff. It's highly likely that they wish both Lander and Riverton ranked higher on the list of public dollars spent per resident. They all wish there was more money to spend on citizens -- not that they would spend it, but simply that they had more options for spending decisions than they do now.

In many cases spending less money at the municipal level isn't really a policy decision at all. It's simply a fact of life. Cities and towns are limited in their revenue-generating capacity, and some key state funding pipelines have either shrunk or been closed off altogether. You can't spend what you don't have.

Rankings based purely on numbers never tell the whole story, either. The local elected officials and department heads know this better than anyone. Spending mechanisms and policies differ from place to place. Two towns with similar population might have sharply different geographic city limits, meaning one has more streets to maintain, more miles to drive more fuel to buy, more trucks to operate.

Not all cities offer the same categories of public service. Riverton, for example, has municipal trash collection. In Lander, that's a private function. Riverton has a commercial airport. Lander doesn't. Lander has more county and state government property within its city limits than Riverton. Lander gets more snow.

The differences are many from city to city, circumstance to circumstance. No simple column of statistics can show them, or would attempt to.

Is ranking low on a list of per-person spending a good thing or a bad thing? That depends partly on who's answering and partly on factors related less to opinion and ideology, and more to geography and idiosyncrasy.

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