THE NEW fountain in Miami's Bayfront Park is by all accounts a beauty -- a sort of liquid sculpture in which water jets operate in computer-guided sequence to imitate the motion of the sea. When it's working, that is. When the fountain is turned off, it is just another uninviting piece of public architecture, surrounded by a moat that is filled -- like most large, underutilized concavities in America -- with kids on skateboards.

Unfortunately, the fountain (named for the late Rep. Claude Pepper and his wife, Mildred) is in that arid condition most of the time now. Miami is having its financial problems and can't afford the cost of keeping the jets going full-time -- about $370,000 a year. The proposed solution is an unusual one, to say the least: install a device similar to an automatic bank teller machine into which any person can insert a credit card and, for about $42, set the fountain rolling for an hour.

The idea has drawn considerable ridicule since it was broached a couple of weeks ago, but city officials have refused to abandon it just yet, and given the state of public finances in this country, who is to say they should? At a time when people resist both taxes and user fees, it may be necessary to appeal to a wider range of motivations than just civic duty -- in this case to the nearly universal desire to be the fellow who stands everyone to a round. Who wouldn't like to step up to a fountain, insert his Visa card in a slot and announce, to the cheers of grateful children, passersby and bench sitters: "The next three hours are on me, folks!" Perhaps in time the concept could be extended well beyond Miami to include drawbridges ("Has anybody got an American Express Gold so we can close this thing?"), dams, street lights, waterworks, escalators and airport control towers.

The Miami fountain, when it is functioning, is said to provide an atmosphere conducive to calm thoughtfulness. We might do well to transplant it here to provide a place where visitors and those who govern them could ruminate on the workings of government and watch the gentle play of the mist. Given the current mood, though, it's more likely they'd be watching kids on skateboards.