Since Oct 9-13 is Municipal Government Week in Indiana, I thought I’d say a few things about – you guessed it – municipal governments. That’s cities and towns, for those of you from Indianapolis.
Even though a town gets only about 16 cents back from every dollar paid in local property taxes, it’s at the local level that streets get fixed, or don’t; that sidewalks get repaired, or not; that water pipes flow water, or that sewer pipes flow that other stuff.
If your sewer stops flowing, you’re not going to wade around wondering when the Indiana Department of Fixin’ Pipes is going to pull into your driveway.
In some communities, services are provided by a county or township: police protection in Huntertown comes from the county, while Churubusco has a township fire department (partially funded by the town). But most towns above a certain threshold do a thousand things people seldom think of. Police and fire protection are the obvious examples, as are streets. Keeping the pipes going is the less obvious example that becomes all-consuming when there’s a problem.
Seriously, do you care how well the Department of Commerce is run when there’s a brown Old Faithful erupting in your back yard?
The first responders, not only for routine emergencies but for terrorist attacks and major disasters, are not the Coast Guard or Marines: they’re local fire, police, and EMS agencies, supplemented by local Emergency Management. Emergency service leaders have said this for decades, and recent incidents proved it.
So local governments are pretty darned important. Not only that, they’re accessible. Sure, there’s a number listed for the U.S. President – but just try to call it up someday and ask for a quick chat with G.W.
But you can call me, a Town Council member, and actually hear my voice: “Ahh – umm --- Old Faithful?”
On October 10, from 1-3 p.m. and after the 6 p.m. Town Council meeting, the public’s invited to tour the new Albion Municipal Building. How often does the federal government hold an open house? Think you’re going to get an invite to the opening of the next Senate Office Complex and Fitness Center? Think again. By its very nature, big government is so – well – big, that the average citizen can’t get close to what’s going on.
A theoretical example: Congressional members can tell you they didn’t know about the $50,000 fresh dill pickle barrels installed in each senatorial office, because their purchase was attached to the new environmental law requiring all municipalities to separate their storm and sanitary sewers without extra funding, even though pickles have nothing to do with sewers other than the obvious internal effects. The Congressmen, you see, didn’t have time to look at each individual paragraph of the 1,423 page document, and the Governor/President didn’t bother because he didn’t have a line-item veto.
I’m not suggesting the Pickle Barrel Relief Bill really happened, but it could have. How would we know, without those few people with the time, energy and money to act as government watchdogs? Many of them are doing it because they have axes to grind, but at least they’re there.
But twice a month, each Albion Town Council member gets two printouts: Accounts Receivable and Balance Reconciliation. Before I walk into that meeting room, I go over each and every item on both those printouts, as well as studying every other piece of paperwork placed into my in-box during that period. Then I keep an eye on it during the meeting, making sure I’m being told the same thing that I’m reading.
It sounds extreme, but when you’re an official in a small town, it’s doable. The average senator in Washington gets enough paperwork each month to account for the death of half the Brazilian rain forest, but mine only takes out a tree or two.
So a member of local government has little excuse. No staff to filter out constituents, no fifteenth floor office for shielding, to reams of paperwork to hide behind. Yes, municipal officials often have to rely on the judgment of experts and technicians, but the same is true of state and federal officials. Your state senator is not likely to be a highway engineer, and your US Congressman’s greatest area of expertise is fund raising. We all have the responsibility to educate ourselves, but I have the advantage that I don’t have to pour over blueprints for the next generation aircraft carrier.
I tried to get one for Albion, but it was out of our budget range.
On the subject of budgets, a municipal budget is comparatively small. It’s very difficult for somebody to get by with throwing large amounts of cash around, which brings me back to the new municipal building. We searched for months for a solution to our space problems, and I was particularly interested in getting all the town utilities under one roof, because there was a lot of waste going on with moving people and equipment back and forth around town.
We looked into building an entirely new utilities structure, but we didn’t look for long. Maybe the federal government wouldn’t have blinked at spending a billion bucks on a brand new, climate controlled storage facility for their World War 2 surplus chocolate bars, but we blinked big time. Instead, we did what anyone does when they need something, but can’t afford new – we bought used. It was bigger than we needed for utilities, but it was the only thing we could get that was big enough.
As a result, to utilize the space and save money, we put almost every town department under the same roof, and the Albion Municipal Building was born. A lot of work went into considering what to do with it, and we’re justifiably proud of a product that should save us in the long run. And here’s the thing that makes a municipal government different from Big Government:
If it turns out we screwed up, you know where to find us.