It must be a tough time to be a local government official.
Whether they toil in the state Capitol, county commission, city council or on a school board, our public officials face the same challenges in a struggling economy: Dwindling tax revenues, less money coming in from governments above and a populace that demands high levels of service without higher taxes.
For more than a year, governments have cut their budgets to adjust to this new status quo. They began by tackling waste, holding the line on salaries and scuttling unnecessary agencies and functions, anything to stretch dollars further. But as taxes trickle in ever slower, those decisions have become tougher. After the fat is trimmed, what's left is flesh and blood, namely jobs and vital services. So public employees endure pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs.
It's painful and unfortunate, yet short of running up massive debt, which isn't an option, that's all local officials can do.
Recent issues in Gainesville and Hall County have shown us the hard reality of this new landscape taking form.
The city of Gainesville has proposed changing its garbage pickup program to save money. Instead of picking up in residents' backyards twice a week, the city has floated the idea of curbside pickup. That would allow installation of an automated system that would save personnel costs.
But Gainesvillians have resisted this idea vehemently. Many residents say they are too elderly and frail to haul huge trash barrels to the curb. Truth is, backyard trash pickup went the way of TV antennas in most counties and cities years ago. But it has continued in Gainesville, and residents aren't in any mood to change it.
We can understand their concerns; it would be a hassle. But what is the city to do? Raising collection fees is one option, but many can't afford to pay more. The costs of pickup have gone up considerably over time, and the fees residents pay don't cover them completely as it is.
Picking up trash less often is a compromise but may not provide the same level of savings. And more emphasis on recycling would help the city recoup some of the costs of the service.
Yet barring a change of heart, the city may have to maintain its current pickup program and find other ways to save money, one that could lead to job losses elsewhere.
Then comes Hall County school system's decision to close Jones Elementary School. With enrollment down and money tight, many systems are looking to shut down schools and redistribute students as needed.
Jones was chosen because it is among the three smallest schools in the system and close enough to other schools with classroom space for its students.
A public hearing Tuesday night drew a large group of residents upset at the notion to close the 60-year-old school, and the effect it would have on students and the community. Those concerns are valid and need to be weighed carefully. But in the end, something must be done or taxes will have to go up countywide, at a time when many families already struggle to pay their bills.
One resident voiced concern that the county would "be closing an icon." That would be a shame, true. But what's worse: Closing an "icon" or squeezing more money out of taxpayers? Are Hall Countians willing to pay teachers that could be better deployed elsewhere?
The school system already has cut jobs, pay and other non-necessary items. And yes, more waste can and should be cut. But would it be enough to offset the costs of keeping Jones open? That's doubtful.
What we continue to see in these and other issues is that too many are unwilling to bear their share of the sacrifice to keep government budgets balanced. They don't want their taxes raised or their services cut. Yet if the cuts come from somewhere else, they're fine with that. Just leave their garbage, libraries, parks and schools alone or they get angry.
This needs to stop. It's long past time we all pulled together and realized the problems we face, as a county, city, state and nation, are shared by us all. That means we should share the burdens equally and be willing to accept a few reasonable inconveniences, especially if it protects other vital services and jobs.
These are not ordinary times. The economy is rebounding, but slowly, and unemployment remains high. Fewer people are paying taxes and have less money to spend. Something has to give.
We look forward to better economic times, when trash can be picked up in backyards, parks and libraries can flourish, children can attend well-maintained, fully staffed neighborhood schools and governments can afford all of it without hiking our taxes.
But that time is not now. The challenges we face are great, but we can meet them if we all do our part rather than worry about protecting services that matter only to a few.
In a time when many seek a wholesale change in how government operates and spends our money, it's worth noting that we all have a stake in the outcome. It's not just up to elected officials to make this happen.
Our public institutions need our votes, our feedback and our watchful eye, but also our active participation in making the system work better for all of us.