What would you change?
It is a New Year and time for new ideas to move forward. In that vein, I contacted a number of people throughout the community and gave them one question:
"If you could 'magically' change one thing at the local level of our government, what would it be?"
While there were too many responses – of which I very much appreciate – to speak to each point individually, there were some rather amazing touch points, even if the perspectives and ideologies were very different.
For instance, one state representative spoke to the need for the county to share tax money more equitably with the various municipalities: “City residents are contributing more to the fund, but do not get their fair share in return.” A local municipal representative spoke in very similar terms to how the state takes in revenue without returning the proper portions to those in the localities who have paid these taxes.
In short, it seems those at the various levels of government need to face those who are paying the bills and honestly work out an equitable arrangement. This should be a fairly continuous discussion, not a one-time horse-and-pony show.
Another local representative noted that state unfunded mandates must be ended. A local municipal representative spoke to this from a state and national level citing the tremendous expense of retrofitting their wastewater treatment plant with enhanced nutrient removal (ENR) technologies. We have spoken of these new requirements from the EPA before and will continue to discuss their repercussions as well as any change that might occur with this new Congress.
Only one local representative spoke to wanting government to shrink – either through tackling the problems head-on, or through contracting or outsourcing those areas that must be continued.
A number of people spoke of their desire to see a change in our form of government. Many specifically cited a county executive system with a strong council “empowered” with an ability to enforce checks-and-balances on this potentially powerful position.
The major justification for this change was the need to have stronger representation in Annapolis and one person taking charge and responsibility. One state representative noted that if this council is based on districts with a remaining at-large position, this will “afford a better chance of diversity on the council both geographically, ethnically and gender wise.”
By creating districts, money becomes less of an issue and name recognition, coupled with more participation, may engender larger participation – if the need for diversity is of major significance to you, this may be yet another justification for a change in government.
Two individuals responded with multiple wishes. Since I blind copied recipients, none of these people was aware of each other, hence, the juxtaposition of their ideologies and similarities about what interested them was of great interest – both are still directly involved or have a lengthy history in politics.
One of these people desired more authority for municipalities to annex property without the myriad of roadblocks currently available to the Board of County Commissioners. As noted by this individual: “If ‘smart growth’ really should steer development around municipalities then this should be a ‘no brainer.’ This would allow a [M]unicipality to grow, and get new tax base, but it also allows the [c]ounty to increase its tax base.” It was noted that the status quo has allowed the county to inflict congestion and overcrowded schools on the municipalities without the benefit of the increased tax base to assist the residents.
Another view was to “[m]erge all the [m]unicipalities and [c]ounty government[s] into one unified "local" government.” This was justified by noting that would “eliminate duplicate or overlapping services,” improve efficiency and potentially save millions. An additional aspect defending this change was the end to the “power struggles which frustrate the public.”
Both views have their merits, consequently the antithetical nature of the two proposals shows the continued push and pull of governmental action and structure. And don’t be misled; a county executive will not remedy this kind of relationship or ideology of governmental structure or responsibility. Both county and municipal governments derive their sovereignty from the state, hence both have similar strengths and weaknesses – giving either a foothold would have long-term consequences.
A number of people spoke to a desire for more open and transparent government. For instance, one previous elected representative suggested a call-in or Internet-in capability during public meetings. As this person suggested, many times an elected official believes they know public opinion, but they may in fact suffer from group think and a narrow spectrum of input. “The task is to balance legitimate but often competing interests, perspectives and opinions.”
It has been brought up that the state desires the capability to use funds initially designated for one purpose to be spent on another purpose – for instance, the shifting of state highway user funds to the General Fund to pay down debt not directly attributed to highway use. A similar – yet potentially much more accountable – circumstance can exist on the local level.
For instance, one local representative noted that such things as water, sewer, and electrical are enterprise funds and considered to be self-supporting. In this vein, it could be found that internal changes could substantially reduce costs in the water fund, for example. Yet, savings from those changes cannot be used to supplement new requirements for the sewer fund. “We are one entity (the town government) [and] we should be able to use all revenues for running the entire town and not have to stay within the bounds of the enterprise funds.” This poses a most interesting didactic on viewing necessary governmental expenditures are all levels of government and just what areas are applicable for shifting monies.
Finally, one person, who also had a number of suggested changes, focused on one alteration. This person suggested a moment of silence before all public meetings. Noting the precedence already exists in the Frederick City Meeting Schedules – in this instance a variety of Invocations are led by different people of faith. A moment of silence would allow the general public to focus on something greater than themselves – I personally see no issue with beginning these meetings with a prayer – this is not a Constitutional issue as there is no separation of church and state, and local government is only bound by the state Constitution. But, either way, this may be one of the simplest, yet most in-depth suggestions to start a New Year – focus upon something greater than yourself at the beginning of the process!