All debt is not created equal.
The federal government's debt of $16 trillion stands out like a sore thumb in the presidential campaign and threatens to be the undoing on President Barack Obama, who has presided over the accumulation of more than $5 trillion of that debt in just less than four years, a pace unmatched by any of his predecessors.
Collier County also has debt. At around $700 million it too has become a political issue and may have contributed to the defeat of Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta, whose Republican primary challenger made frequent mention of the figure.
While everyone would agree that having no debt is preferable to having debt (OK, maybe not everyone. Alexander Hamilton argued that some debt is a good thing. It gives the people you owe a reason to root for your success), there are some big differences between the debt carried by Collier County and that owed by the U.S. government.
Of course, as a raw dollar amount, the U.S. debt is larger than the Collier County debt by a factor of about 22,000.
But that's not the most telling figure. Collier County's total debt is less than the county government takes in in a single year. That figure is more than $800 million.
If you make $50,000 a year and your total debt — mortgage, car loan, credit card balances, etc. — is less than $50,000, you probably feel like you're in pretty good shape.
On the other hand, the federal government takes in about $2.3 trillion a year. The national debt is seven times higher than annual income. It is as if the person making $50,000 a year has $350,000 in mortgages, car loans, credit cards, etc.
Another important difference is how the money was spent.
In Collier County, as a rule, borrowed money has been spent on things like roads, water plants, buildings and parks. Because money was borrowed to build them, people will be paying for them for years to come. But people will be using them for years to come too. Those of us lucky enough to be alive in the future will continue to use and pay. People who get less use, because they haven't been born yet, will pay less. But they'll pay something. Not a bad arrangement, when you think about it.
In contrast, the federal government is spending much of the money it borrows on immediate needs that won't last into the future. It is borrowing money from future generations for things like salaries for current government employees and entitlement benefits for current recipients. As necessary as today's government employees may be, they represent no significant benefit to taxpayers a generation from now.
There was a time not too long ago when Collier County had a much lower debt.
In the late 1990s the figure was well below $200 million. People who remember those days also remember daily traffic jams in season, a dearth of playing fields and jail cells and the threat of a building moratorium due to inadequate capacity to treat water and sewage.
That's when a new crop of county commissioners, including Coletta, and new top management embarked on an aggressive building (and borrowing) campaign to not only catch up but to get ahead of the growth curve.
In testament to that effort stands a new courthouse, an expanded jail, magnificent parks, a road network that deftly handles traffic even in the busiest months and water and sewage plants with capacity to spare.
Some refer to the collective assets as "gold-plated infrastructure." It's true, for example, that the overpass on Golden Gate Parkway at Airport-Pulling Road is beautiful, as road overpasses go, and that beauty came at a high price. But Collier County projects an upscale image to the world and that image helps drive the economy. Bare I-beams, naked medians and gray stucco exteriors aren't going to cut it.
None of this is to say county commissioners can borrow and spend whatever they like. The point is that not all debt equates to wasteful or irresponsible spending.
Because the county is up to date with its infrastructure and because growth has slowed to a trickle, the next group of county commissioners can likely avoid borrowing for years to come.
That's welcome news for everyone (except perhaps the ghost of Alexander Hamilton) but let's not kid ourselves that we could be debt free and still enjoy the quality of life we have in Collier County today.