Fire Department in Fairfax County, VA, Caught in Corrupt Spending, Uses “Washington Monument” Strategy

March 31, 2009

The local government in Fairfax County, Virginia, has been caught red-handed by TV reporters in the performance of a classic “Washington Monument” stunt. That’s the name given to a public relations strategy employed by government officials to avoid budget cuts.

Here’s how it works: when revenues are falling, and some taxpayer advocates call for a spending reduction that local officials want to avoid, they announce that the most vital, sympathetic program on their books will have to be cut. No effort is made to eliminate wasteful or corrupt spending. The tactic is named after the National Park Service’s stunt in the mid-1990s: when they were asked to conserve funds, they closed the Washington Monument, the most popular attraction they controlled. Here’s the Fairfax County, VA, version, as exposed by Tisha Thompson at local Fox 5 News.

As the economy has shrunk, Fairfax County’s taxpayers expected every department of local government to tighten its belt. So what was the Fire Department’s reaction? Cutting “First Team,” which provides support to family members when firefighters are hurt. The cost of First Team? $6,000.

Fox 5 investigated the use of county-owned vehicles by the Fairfax Fire Department and found a goldmine of corrupt spending a hundred times as large as First Team. Yet even when the fire chief was caught on camera, confronted with his disgraceful, dishonest proposal to cut First Team while deliberately permitting the corrupt waste of hundreds of thousands of dollars that benefitted him, his wife and other high officials, he essentially promised that no one would be punished and nothing substantial would change. His attitude is really a testament to how impervious public officials can be to real economic concerns.

Unfortunately, it’s not rare to see this Washington Monument strategy. We published a report on state government budgets recently that had several great examples of governments avoiding budget cuts with this tactic, and our Tax Policy Blog has chronicled some classics.

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