A reader of this column called me the other day from a city park, where he usually goes once or twice a week to take a break from his busy business to eat lunch and regroup.
He was pretty upset. Nearby, he said, a Palm Beach County worker was parked in his county vehicle taking a midday snooze with the windows closed, the engine and air conditioning running.
The reader is a smart, successful businessman who runs a very established business and employs a number of people. He stated that, from both a business perspective and as a taxpayer, he was disgusted with the waste of gas and wear and tear on the truck as the worker napped in it.
"The least the [guy] could do is find a shady spot, leave their windows and shut the engine off, like anyone paying for the gas would do," he told me.
While he talked to me, the reader emailed me a photo he had taken of the guy sleeping in the truck.
"Take a look at the picture -- you should write about it," he told me. "Sometimes I come to the park and there are a number of county and city guys doing this. It's a disgrace."
Initially, my inclination was not to write about it. I didn't want to portray government workers in a bad light -- and I was afraid that writing the article would result in someone losing their job from the publicity.
But I was very much bothered by what the reader told me and by the picture, too. Not simply because of the employee's wasteful gas burning and wear and tear on the truck (which was bad enough), but because this employee was not cognitive -- or just insensitive or even uncaring -- of how such government squander burns at the psyche of a beleaguered public that has been paying higher and higher taxes as their earning capacity and quality of life has been severely diminished in a bad economy.
In the private sector today, employers look to squeeze every working moment from their employees -- for example, many eat their lunch at their desk, or skip it altogether. Judging from that picture, I don't think the napping employee had the same productivity pressures or critical management of his workday at his Palm Beach County job. That's too bad.
Recently, the Sun Sentinel ran an expose of off-duty police officers excessively speeding in their take home cruisers after a state trooper arrested a Miami officer for going over 100 mph. I felt the stories could end up unfairly casting all South Florida's policemen and women in a bad light because a few of them put the pedal to the metal excessively.
Yet, what the lesson from the speeding cops expose, and now the PBC worker sleeping in his pick-up, is that perceptions matter more than ever. With the economy so bad now, and those lucky enough to have work scrimping by to pay their bills and put food on the table, these blatant public displays of waste and excess in taxpayer-subsidized vehicles highlight a careless disregard for public funds and how they are spent. Taxpayers are hurting and the public is no mood for it.
So I decided to write this column basically to tell that tired worker in the county truck I help pay to run and maintain that I really don't mind if he takes a nap at lunchtime in the park, but at least find a shady place to take it, shut off the engine, and open the windows -- but stop wasting my gas and my money.
Also, there are people out there taking pictures and movies with their Smartphones, posting them in cyberspace, and sending them to the newspaper -- ready to make you an example of how really wasteful municipal government is. Photos and videos that could become a lot more decisive than you could ever imagine in the next round of salary and benefits cuts.
This article appeared in the Sun Sentinel on May 24, 2012