In the interest of furthering that goal, I wanted to use this space to offer up some of my basic opinions about things—especially since I have recently received some feedback that I am a card carrying liberal or an outright socialist. To those that know me well, a chuckle of sorts should have just occurred.
I would love to get some feedback on these core principles of mine, especially if you don’t agree or have some questions. And I certainly recognize that in the future someone may hold up what I write here to further their perceptions of me being one way or the other. But remember, in all cases, perceptions are in the eye of the beholder. And if writing what I believe and hold true now serves to ensure my future consistency with my ideals or to further my efforts to broaden and evolve my opinions and creeds based on future science, public discourse, or societal growth then I feel strongly that this effort has served its purpose.
In no specific order, here we go.
The number one threat to long term viable communities is development that is not planned or managed effectively. Sprawling suburban growth has fostered many negative consequences from environmental impacts to the exacerbation of social problems to increased tax burdens to pay for inefficient public services required by the expectations of residents in far flung areas of development. In many cases, effective suburban growth means greater density—not less, as this ensures the ability to provide effective services, contributes to more functional communities, and permits city services to be provided in a more cost effective manner.
Taxes & Government Services
In many if not all cases, government revenues have not increased to match the increases in cost of government services. Governments at all levels have a vested interest in providing effective services—this means hiring and maintaining a stable and skilled workforce. Therefore, government salaries and benefits should be better than the private sector—provided that the worker is skilled and effective. Lowballing public sector salaries or benefits only drives away the most competent workers from public service. Beyond this, citizens at all levels of government have come to expect a certain level of service from their governments and that the services they expect are competent. Therefore this creates a catch-22, many don’t want to pay for a service, but they still expect that service. The key is in several areas—first, the sustainable development mentioned above. Second, making public sector employees partners with their employers and their communities to improve local services while maintaining viable cost structures. There are many, many opportunities in this area—from flex time workers, encouraging workers to live in the communities that employ them, to holding managers and supervisors directly responsible for outcomes. The primary key, however, is public education on the part of community leaders about what services cost and what services are required to keep a community a safe, secure, and quality place to live. My home town reacted to budget crises by laying off its building code officer and not growing its Police Department to meet demands for service. Now, although taxes may be a few dollars less a year, many neighborhoods in the community are literally dying and turning to minor ghettos. Was saving $50 or $100 a year on taxes worth it? Put another way, many people love to say government should be run like a business. I agree. But if the cost of hamburgers and buns goes up as well as the rent for the building, the local hamburger stand does not always look to lower the salary of its workers—for it knows what the outcome would be—decreased customer service. Instead, the business tweaks its product and adjusts prices. Yes, this isn’t desirable—but it is the reality of doing business.
Government Consolidation & Cooperation
One of the prime ways that local governments should work to save money is by working to lessen the layers of local government and bureaucracy. Each of these added layers is an added burden to the taxpayer. Specific examples are many of the townships in
. This form of government was a creation to
oversee sparsely populated villages and farmland in Ohio (and other states) with the obvious
expectation that, as areas developed, they would incorporate and evolve into
cities. That three trustees and one
fiscal officer can be considered effective representation for thousands of
residents of a township is an amazing reflection of power being held onto by
some—in spite of fiscal or practical logic.
Further, in areas where townships are simply political islands, the time
has come for the cities that surround them to absorb townships and bring them
into the community that they are so obviously a part in ever other way. Ohio
In addition to streamlining layers of government, there exists an obvious need to work on consolidating agencies that provide government services. This does not have to mean the ending of local community boundaries—but it can mean a county-wide agency for Fire, Police, Road, Sewer, Water, and other services. This type of consolidation will save serious money and can result in improved services. The critical caveat, however, is that these larger agencies will require effective feedback from local communities to ensure that services are maintained or improved, and competent leaders and managers to ensure that the agency does not become a monster run amuck. If these can be avoided, then the opportunities are well worth the risk.
Coordination amongst local groups and government agencies
Regardless of the local governing structure, one of the greatest threats to effective communities is the silo based approach that characterizes our local governments today. To often, problems or opportunities are looked at from only one prospective—without an understanding of how they affect the whole of the community. For example, closing a school—while it may save a certain amount of funds, may have wide ranging impacts that take it from being cost effective to cost prohibitive once the costs of transportation, the impact on nearby businesses, and the local community are taken into account. The same may be true of the decision to not build a road and leave isolated a certain area of the community. As a result, the decision to save $5 million on a road may result in a new firehouse having to be built to service that isolated area of town—at a one time cost of $5 million and annual personnel costs of $1,000,000. Cities and communities and other institutes of government need to be looked at as systems—where everything has an impact on everything else. Too often, people only see one part of the picture and, as a result, decisions are made that are in a small way good (or bad) but have an undesired effect on the community as a whole.
What make a community successful?
In my opinion, these key areas are the major parts of the system that must be considered at all times when discussing the health of a community:
1. Public Safety—The community must have an effective police, fire, and emergency medical service focused on providing services that meet accepted national standards for public safety response and protection.
2. Education—To be viable, a community must have effective schools—including post-secondary schools. These schools should prepare students both for college and, for others, for work in the private sector. Many industries across this country are clamoring for workers to perform tasks that don’t require a college degree but do require vocational training. Matching a local school system to the needs of our modern economy will do far more to ensure economic success than tax abatements or new jails.
3. Economic Opportunity—Local communities must ensure that well managed businesses can thrive—not just big corporations, but every business right down to the mom and pop deli and the tech start up or new artist working from their basement. However, this doesn’t mean letting these business operate as they want. There must be common sense regulations, enforced fairly, that ensure a level playing field and safety for employers, employees, and consumers alike. Further, the great innovators should be supported as well. Shared community supported space for start-ups, are a great way for local communities to encourage economic growth. Companies don’t start off in office towers—they start in garages, small office parks, or on tables in libraries—or around coffee tables in a diner.
4. Culture and Diversity—People are most creative when they are free to be themselves. A successfully community needs to respect and encourage all kinds of people to live in the community, start families in the communities and start businesses in the community. By encouraging an atmosphere of true freedom and respect—an immediate result will be improved outcomes as people of various backgrounds, cultures, orientations, spiritual beliefs, socio-economic classes—and more, combine their experiences into a fabric. There is a reason that so many great American success stories come from places that exemplify these traits. It is a lesson taught by the rich history of
is a lesson we should not forget. America
5. Recreation, Sports, and Events, and Religion—residents of local communities benefit from activities and social outlets and these benefit even non participants through increased economic activity, increased sense of pride in the community, and greater interaction between community members. Whether it is a once-a-month major event (such as art festival, 4th of July parade and fireworks, or Christmas Show)—the more is truly the merrier. These events should focus on all age groups—from toddlers to senior citizens and help to build a vibrancy that is a hallmark of revered American Towns across the country. All local groups have a role to play in this effort—from churches to senior centers to schools—and many of these groups should devote a portion of their mission to helping those in the community that are less fortunate. By organizing literacy efforts, can food drives, big-brothers- big sisters events and related efforts, these groups can not only build a sense of community—but also the level of success in the community.
6. Best Practices—Many of these things we already know, or someone else does.
The greatest secret of what to do to build viable communities is that it’s not a secret. Many of the things we need to do can be illustrated by successes from other places—places that have tried to address problems that they faced and have come away with amazing successes in many cases. Not all the time, of course, but even from less than successful efforts there are opportunities. We need to be open to learn from other places and our own past to take those lessons, match them to our local realities, and build teams and approaches to building better places for our families and friends and fellow citizens to live.
Conclusions and Approach
Too often, politicians and local leaders focus too much on radical ideologies and partisan games rather than getting down to the essential goal, questions (and answers) that should be paramount at all times in the hearts and minds of any political figure—how do I do what’s best for the community I serve. Not how do I lower taxes, or get union pay increased twenty percent. Not how do I get a firehouse built with my name on it, or exact revenge on the person that ran against me. But rather how do I work together—with all the people of my community—to solve problems, create and take advantage of opportunities—and ensure that for this generation and those that follows, my community is safe, secure, growing, and great place to live. We have done this before—in different times and different places we have found these answers and this is why I am optimistic that we will find them again. That is why I am looking forward to being a part of the solution.