“It’s like Mayberry,” visitors sometimes say, a genuine small town of the sort that used to thrive all across this great land. It’s not just a bedroom community. A hospital complex and a small university employ more than a thousand people, while the usual restaurant, retail, and service outlets round out the job market. It’s also a nice place to retire, with a wide range of housing options and income brackets, a moderate climate, and more churches per capita than most towns of its size. In many ways, it’s the best of America.
Two years ago, a new structure began rising beside the YMCA: an indoor pool. That made sense; the old city pool was beset with problems that weren’t worth fixing. But as the months went by, the huge, glass-walled building (or monstrosity, depending on who you talked to) revealed ambitions that seemed outsized for a small town. It was not just a pool; it was the “Aqua Zone,” with retractable roof, four-story waterslide, a rock-climbing wall, a lazy river, a children’s play area, and spray ground. Really? Towns with “Pop. 10,000” usually can’t support little water parks of their own, but perhaps this was an exception. Aqua Zone boosters assured anxious souls that it was.
Alas, it wasn’t. The aquatic center burgeoned into a $6 million straw that broke the camel’s back. Concerned citizens petitioned the state auditor, who subsequently gave the town his worst rating for financial management. It wasn’t just the aquatic center, with its huge cost overruns and operating expenses. Unexpected repairs needed to be made on other city functions, and funds that should have been set aside weren’t there. The state audit found no evidence of crime, just mismanagement on several levels. While presenting his report, the auditor spared no painful details: He’s seen as bad, but no worse. The town is almost broke, both in finances and in reputation. With some strict belt-tightening and procedural reforms, it should begin to dig its way out, but in the meantime, retirees and young families may think twice about moving there.
At least Bolivar, Mo., is getting its act together. Other towns and cities weren’t so proactive and couldn’t stop the madness this side of bankruptcy. But Bolivar’s troubles are a reminder that no town, however Mayberry-like, is exempt from the weird sense of unreality about money that a consumer culture fosters. This is the downside of prosperity and innovation. With so many pretty things to buy, a way must be found to buy them, even if it takes fiscal sleight of hand. The late Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., reportedly made this statement critical of his colleagues’ spending habits: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” Real money always crashes the party, sooner or later. The day of reckoning finally came for Bolivar, as it does for countless individuals with overactive credit cards. Eventually, it will come for the United States as well.