May 29, 2012 — On May 20, the Detroit Free Press featured an editorial with the headline, “Financial Crisis: coming to a city government near you.” It was right on target…and not just because I was quoted in it.
I don’t have to belabor the fiscal challenges our local governments face…lower property values, reduced state shared revenue, Proposal A and Headlee imposed limits on returning to previous property tax revenues (even as property values rise), as well as daunting legacy costs. Further, we have yet to see the likely impacts of repeal of the industrial portion of personal property tax. Tough times for local governments.
Despite this bleak picture, I remain encouraged. Why?
- The economy is recovering, albeit slowly.
- Local government leaders have demonstrated great courage in making the difficult decisions to balance their budgets…frequently taking never-popular cuts in government services.
- Local leaders are increasingly embracing jointly providing services or outsourcing the delivery of certain services to their neighbors or their counties.
- And, very importantly, despite the fiscal challenges, local leaders are finding opportunities to invest in sense-of-place improvements to make their communities more attractive to businesses as well as younger, talented professionals…both important to our long-term economic prosperity.
The future? I see three critical pieces of the puzzle that will take us to sustainable, prosperous government. First, we, as taxpayers, need to renew our appreciation for the services we receive from our local governments. Somehow, government has gotten a bad name. It is viewed as a sinkhole for our tax dollars, not the provider of services for the public good and my individual good. We should value quality police, fire, waste collection, building inspection, elections, etc. Second, we need to reinforce courageous decisions by our elected officials to be responsible, to take the steps necessary to balance their budgets. We need to get beyond criticizing elected leaders for unpopular actions and reward them for doing what is needed. And third, as called for in the Free Press editorial, we need to convene a solution-centered group to direct a fix for a broken system of funding local government.
Yes, leaders will have to continue to trim expenses. In the long run, however, if we truly believe that local government plays an important role in our long-term prosperity, we need adequate funding. Our future depends on all these pieces.
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