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Spend now, or spend more later

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By Greg Romberg

When I first started working, some of the best advice I ever got was, “Don’t let the urgent get in the way of the important.” Over the years, that idiom has helped me to step back and think about long-term priorities, immediate needs and how they should be balanced and prioritized.
As we’ve worked over the last generation to squeeze as many efficiencies as possible out of government, there are a plethora of examples where maintenance and replacement of capital assets were delayed too long, ultimately costing taxpayers too much in both dollars and human costs. Coloradans have been spared catastrophic accidents that have occurred in other states when a bridge fails, but deteriorating roads and bridges in Colorado have forced us to face dedicated fee increases to make them safe again. Another very visible local example is the dome at the state Capitol, which is currently being repaired through a fund-raising campaign that would never have been necessary if we had conducted maintenance on an ongoing basis.
Similarly, equipment has a usable life, and it’s often more expensive to maintain rather than to replace things after their useful lives have passed.  
The Jefferson County School District has come under some fire lately for planning to spend almost $9 million to replace its phone system at the same time that a package of $40 million in cuts is being implemented in response to reductions in state funding to local school districts. At first blush, it seems odd that we’d replace the phone system if the cuts could be mitigated with those funds. But further inspection suggests the district has thought through the decision and its implications and has made a sound decision.
First of all, the $8.8 million we’ll spend is spread over four years, so there’s not much ability to mitigate cuts in a meaningful way. Additionally, most of the money being used comes from federal technology funds that have limited applicability for the areas that are being cut. Finally, the phone system, which was originally installed in 1994, is nearing the end of its useful life. Both the cost and complications of maintaining this system will continue to increase as parts become harder to find. When there are phone outages, like the one at Evergreen Middle School last month, it becomes harder and takes longer to fix them. Pick the cliché: Whether it’s “penny wise and pound foolish” or “don’t throw good money after bad,” the district must be strategic about making these kinds of decisions.
Critics of the new system are right to insist that the school district use our precious resources efficiently and effectively and look for ways to mitigate the negative impacts of budget difficulties. However, we can’t let the urgent get in the way of the important, and it’s important that we adequately plan for the future and replace this phone system before it becomes obsolete or the cost of maintaining it becomes a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.