The Public Sector and the Tax Base

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 3rd, 2013

Economics 101

All Government Bureaucracies Grow Bigger and Pay their People Very Well

Big cities throughout the United States are suffering financially.  They are drowning under the costs of their public sector employees.  For when the Great Recession hit tax revenues fell.  People lost jobs and paid less income taxes.  People out of work spent less in the local stores causing a fall in sales taxes.  People drove less and paid less gas taxes.  Home values plummeted, reducing property taxes.  Tax revenue fell at all levels of government.  Leaving the big cities unable to pay their bills.  With less help from the governments above them.  While their infrastructures crumbled.  And they struggled to furnish basic city services.

Governments don’t make anything.  They just have people doing things.  So there are little economies of scale.  Just a lot of people.  The public sector includes every worker in the city paid by tax revenue.  The mayor, city council, school teachers, police officers, firefighters, garbage collectors, boiler operators, electricians, janitors, building inspectors, meter readers, bus drivers, etc.   And all the civil servants and bureaucrats that push paper.  Requiring a huge payroll.  And lots of benefits.  In a large city with a population of 1.5 million those costs can look like this:

Public Sector Costs 1

All government bureaucracies have two things in common.  They always grow bigger.  And pay their people very well.  So the above table has three columns.  Showing the growth of the public sector.  (Assuming a constant population to simplify our math).  From 1% of the city population to 2% then to 3%.  So the number of city employees goes from 15,000 to 30,000 to 45,000.  By the time you add in pay, holiday pay, vacation pay, sick days and health insurance the active employee costs are huge.  Going from $1 billion to $2 billion to $3 billion.  Today it is not uncommon for a big city with a population of 1.5 million to have 45,000 public sector workers.  So we will build on that figure.  And add in retiree costs.

As City’s Population Declines so does its Tax Base

Another big perk of working in the public sector are the great pensions.  Something that has long since disappeared in the private sector.  While most of us have to put money away in a 401(k) public sector workers can count on a generous pension during a long retirement.  Perhaps getting as much as 80% of their base pay.  Plus they keep their health insurance.  Which is unlike the health insurance most of us get in the private sector.  For it covers everything.  With few co-pays.  And only the best name-brand pharmaceutical prescriptions.  This is why people want to work in the public sector.  And why they want to retire from the public sector.  Because no one else pays as well.

Public Sector Costs 2

Public sector workers retire long before their counterparts in the private sector.  Allowing them to live a long retirement.  And because they live so long into retirement the city ends up paying for almost as many retirees as they do active workers.  Putting great cost pressures on these cities as more of their workers retire.  Within as few as 2 decades the cost of retired workers can go from $648 million to $1.9 billion.   When we add this cost to the cost of their active workers we get the total cost of the public sector.

Public Sector Costs 3

As time passes and more people retire from the public sector we can see how the cost of the public sector (active and retired) rises from $3.7 billion to $4.4 billion to $5 billion.  Which, of course, the people living in the city have to pay.  The taxpayers.  They pay income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes and a variety of other taxes and fees.  Who by the time the number of retirees reach 40,500 must pay $3,336 per year.  Or $278 per month.  Or $64.15 per week.  Or $9.16 each day.  Just to get a true feel of how much this is do the following exercise.  Each day take a $10 bill out of your wallet or purse and throw it away.  This will approximate the cost of the public sector you pay for.  Until the people start leaving the city.  And as the population declines so does the tax base.  Requiring each person to pay a larger share of the public sector cost.

To pay for an Expanding Government you need a Growing Population

If a city starts losing population it doesn’t reduce the need to pay the bloated public sector.  Both active and retired.  So the fewer people remaining in the city have to pay a larger share of the public sector cost.  Because the public sector union isn’t going to allow the city to lay off any workers.  So it’s up to the taxpayers.  But as the population shrinks it becomes more painful to do.

Public Sector Costs 4

By the time the population falls to 500,000 the amount of taxes a person must pay to support the public sector amounts to a house payment.  Or $192.46 per week.  Or $27.49 each day.  Can you imagine taking three $10 bills out of your wallet or purse every day just to throw them away?  Probably not.  Because no one would.  Cities just can’t keep increasing the tax burden on their people.  For there is a limit.  And when a city reaches it they start borrowing.  Which is how cities go into debt.  And flirt with bankruptcy.  Because of these bloated public sectors.  That grew when the cities grew.  But they didn’t shrink as their populations shrank.

We have ignored corporations in our exercise.  Which increase the tax base.  But we have also excluded additional costs.  Buildings, vehicles, equipment, housing assistance, food assistance, fuel for city vehicles, car insurance, property insurance, liability insurance, lawsuits, etc.  If we factor these things in the numbers will only look worse.  As the cost of the active and retired workers increases there’s less money to pay for the basic city services.  So they deteriorate.  Which when added to the higher taxes chase even more people out of the city.  Reducing the tax base further.  Leaving even less money for the basic city services.

When the population declines so does the city.  As the public sector workers consume a greater percentage of the shrinking tax base cities suffer increasing urban decay.  As there is little money for anything but the public sector workers and their benefits.  For when it comes to paying for government population is key.  You need a growing population to pay for expanding government.  To spread the costs of a bloated public sector over as many people as possible.  And you can’t do that with a declining population.  Which is why big cities flirt with bankruptcy during bad economic times.  For they can pay for their bloated public sectors only during the best of economic times.  And only during the best of economic times.

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