Last Saturday, I looked out the window of my home in Ypsilanti to see community volunteers, not city workers, sprucing up the baseball diamond at the park across the street. It dawned on me that I was watching the new reality for local governments playing out in my hometown…local governments under great pressure to reset the mix of services they provide.
Local government revenues have dramatically crashed over the past several years due to lowered property values and reduced state revenue sharing. The response by local elected officials and staff has, by and large, focused on “how” they provide services. How do they provide services more efficiently? How do they continue to maintain services with reduced staff? How do they collaborate with their neighbors to achieve economies of scale? All good questions. All good responses to the first rounds of revenue shortfall. Not good enough to solve the revenue vs. expenditure gap in the face of repeated revenue hits. Further, Proposal A and Headlee caps will limit local government revenue growth even when the good times return.
The new reality demands a serious look at the array of services local governments provide…the “what” government does, not just “how” it does it. In Ypsilanti, a bold mayor and strong city council made the tough decisions several years ago. Recreation services are important…we just can’t afford them. Yes, we will mow the grass in the parks and pick up the litter, but the recreation programming…youth baseball, youth swimming, and senior recreation…would all be carried out by volunteers, not government staff.
In good financial times, local governments met lots of needs. Now, governments have to make the tough priority decisions. Is police and fire service more important than supporting parades, festivals, recreation, curbside leaf pick up? All are important for the community quality of life. Not all are amenities local government has to provide.
Local governments must step up to the plate and deal with the “what” they provide. As importantly, our taxpayers must accept a reality…we get that for which we are willing to pay. We may no longer get everything we think local governments should give us.
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