Reach into your left pocket and pull out some money.
(Just play along. We're making a point.)
Now reach into your right pocket and pull out some more money.
When it comes to counting all the money you have in your possession, does it really matter which pocket you take it from? Obviously not.
So why does it make sense when the state of New York fines a municipality for violating a state regulation, as most recently happened when the city of Amsterdam was fined $55,000 for illegally discharging sewage from its treatment facilities?
That fine is going to eventually come out of the pocket of Amsterdam taxpayers. The only question is which pocket.
We understand the deterrent purpose of fines in enforcing the law. The prospect of being fined is why most of us won't drive 90 mph through the Sheriff's Department parking lot. We like having our money in our pockets. Financial penalties are a legitimate way to prevent and discourage certain violations of the law.
But how does it make sense for one government entity to fine another one?
Is being fined repeatedly going to make Amsterdam fix its problem?
The city already has allocated $160,000 to fix an improperly installed pump valve that's blamed for some recent discharges, and it’s planning a $5 million overhaul of its sewer treatment system next year. What crime will this fine exactly deter?
Not only does Amsterdam still have to fix whatever problems it has with its wastewater collection system, but thanks to the state fine, it now has to find another $55,000 in its budget to pay for it.
That means it has to take $55,000 from, say, sidewalk upgrades or pothole repairs or police salaries in order to pay its fine to the state and still have enough money to fix the sewer leak problem.
How about this? Rather than the state taking money from the community, how about it require that for every violation, the community must apply the amount of the fine toward repairs? If your sewer leaks, and it's worth a $100,000 fine, the city has to find $100,000 somewhere — either from other budget items or borrowing — to directly address the problem. If it doesn't fix it, the state will step in and do the work itself and send the community a bill.
Or punish the community another way, by making it ineligible for state grants for things the community might want, such as parks or bike paths or bridges-to-nowhere. While it's still a financial penalty, it's at least not taking money that could be used for vital resources and putting it in the state budget as a penalty.
If nothing else, impose the fine, but with the promise to return the money to local taxpayers once the repairs are made.
We're sure someone can come up with other creative incentives to get communities to comply with state regulations.
Whatever incentive they come up with, the best solution is for the state to work with a municipality rather than punish it financially.
Because when that happens, the ultimate losers are the taxpayers.