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Smart money on horseplay

Updated: 2013-06-08 14:00
By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily)

Smart money on horseplay

Policewomen patrolling on horseback have always been an attraction for visitors in Dalian, Liaoning province. Chen Hao / for China Daily

In a sense, the city of Dalian having a mounted unit is similar to the United Kingdom keeping its royalty. It's ceremonial, and it boosts image-dependent tourism. And tourism is a serious business. On top of that, to those locals who love it, it bumps up their civic pride.

It's obvious the original city leaders got the idea from Western countries with their horse-riding tradition. The good thing is, no other Chinese city has imitated the practice. If 50 other major Chinese municipalities had installed their own "police flowers" (affectionate nickname for policewomen in Chinese) on horseback, the luster surrounding Dalian would have dissipated as only the history-conscious would have remembered it as the originator of this custom in the Middle Kingdom.

As for the expenses disclosed by the authority, they seem ludicrously low. I recently visited a jockey club in Jiangsu province and was told how expensive it is to keep a horse of fine breed. Even the guy who puts the hooves on horses takes special training and is paid a handsome salary. The cost cited by Dalian, especially 2,500 yuan a month to keep a horse, could well be the most marginal in book-keeping, excluding any overheads or one-time outlays.

This style of reporting seems designed to deflect public criticism, but could well have gone overboard in the eyes of accounting professionals. However, it is a sign of progress that an ordinary citizen may openly question the validity of a service rendered by the city department he used to work for, and equally important, that department was prompt to provide answers, albeit with numbers at the suspiciously low end of the credibility gauge.

The value of a mounted police unit should be measured in both financial and non-financial terms. Full and accurate accounting is important, but intangible benefits - what economists call positive externalities - should also be included. If a significant percentage of the population is inclined to the idea, it means the project has wide support.

Ideally, a municipal program of this magnitude should be subject to public feedback, which is the best way to determine the use of taxpayer money for this kind of project. Barring that, controversies such as the latest one serve as a reminder that, even for projects that spruce up a city's image, civic leaders should conduct a cost-benefit analysis and be ready for public scrutiny.

It takes money to make a city look good, but smart money can do the job more efficiently.

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