One of the weird aspects of American politics is that we generally talk and debate and bicker over the parts of our democracy that are most removed from us.
Fights in Washington draw big headlines. Battles in Albany get a lot of attention. But the goings-on in county seats, city councils and school boards around the North Country generally draw ho-hum responses from the public.
Which is exactly backwards. In many states — and New York is one of them — a huge portion of the actual rubber-hitting-the-road job of governance and safety net programs happens at the hyper-local level.
No Child Left Behind, Obamacare, and the Federal Stimulus affect our lives, to be sure. They’re like distant earthquakes that send tremors through our small towns.
But the thing that’s going to change your life — or the experience of your children — generally gets decided on a Tuesday or a Thursday night, with a couple of dozen citizens in a room hashing out the fine details.
On one level, this is a really cool system. It puts government as close to the people as possible.
The guy (or gal) making the decision that will affect your kid’s education or your elderly mother’s home health care probably buys groceries where you buy groceries.
But there are a couple of concerns that need some attention, particularly in the post-recession era when aid from the state and Federal governments is dwindling.
First, we continue to fund a lot of these local programs (everything from cooperative extension agriculture stations to care for seniors) with property taxes.
And property taxes vary dramatically from community to community and county to county.
As a result, we’ve wound up with a situation where one town has Cadillac programs and the next town over is struggling by with jalopy-level government.
It’s also problematic when a lot of small communities make a lot of hyper-local decisions without any form of coordination or dialogue on a regional level.
One county selling off a nursing home is problematic and maybe controversial. But if five of them — or more — are doing it at the same time? That raises much bigger questions and at present we have no way of sorting out what it means.
And what about other issues that transcend local boundaries, from flood control to rabies mitigation? How do we resolve the feuds over fire protection that often flare up between neighboring towns and villages?
Right now, there’s not much out there to foster this kind of coordination.
The state and Federal governments mandate a certain amount of uniformity across local lines, and their infusion of cash still guarantees a minimum level of protection.
But mandates are controversial and the flow of money from on high is unlikely to be restored to pre-recession levels any time soon.
Stephen Acquario, head of the New York association of counties, has begun warning of the danger of a “social bankruptcy” in local governments around the state.
That means local agencies going it alone won’t have enough resources individually to provide the basic services required in a moral community, protecting “the most needy, the most frail population out there.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo shook up local government by pushing through a 2% property tax cap. But it seems like more leadership may be in order to sort out what this will mean, and how local government might work better under the new regime.
Right now, it’s pretty much sink or swim and every village and town for itself.
One step toward a bigger think about local government and its services may be the Regional Economic Development Council. That process has helped to shape a more broad brush approach to thinking about the North Country.
Maybe a similar model is needed to think about local government and its most valuable programs. What are the essential services that need to be provided going forward?
Are there ways that by working together some of those priorities can be sustained?
It’s not difficult to imagine a future where the current balkanized system will mean some communities muddling through or even thriving, while their neighbors fall into disastrous fiscal disarray.
That kind of checkerboard pattern of success and failure will make it very hard indeed for the North Country as a whole to thrive.
As always, your comments welcome.