Friday, April 24, 2009

Inefficiency, rurality, and county government

Earlier this week, an op-ed piece by Tom Brokaw appeared in the New York Times under the headline, "Small-Town Big Spending." Brokaw's essential argument might be summarized as this: government in rural places and rural states is inefficient and should be reformed, in part because times have changed and distance doesn't present the obstacle it once did to rural residents.

He makes some good points, I suppose. Here's an excerpt focusing on the state of New York as an example:
It’s estimated that New York State has about 10,500 local government entities, from townships to counties to special districts. A year ago a bipartisan state commission said that New Yorkers could save more than a billion dollars a year by consolidating and sharing local government responsibilities like public security, health, roads and education.

One commission member, a county executive, said, “Our system of local government has barely evolved over the past one hundred years and we are still governed by these same archaic institutions formed before the invention of the light bulb, telephone, automobile and computer.”
Brokaw goes on to give further examples of what he sees as wasteful local government which is largely attributable to how county lines happened to be drawn hundreds of years ago. He holds up Iowa's 99 counties as one example, and the 17 colleges and universities spread across North and South Dakota as another. He assumes that it is absurd for Iowa to have some county seats that are only 40 miles apart, and he attributes the fact that the Dakotas have all those tertiary education institutions to an earlier era "when travel was more difficult and farm families wanted their children close by during harvest season." Brokaw notes that with all of these states losing population, the per capita tax burden to maintain government services is rising, and that aging residents of these states (and others) face an increasing burden in this regard.

Brokaw proposes consolidating administrative functions so that not every county courthouse has a full complement of county officials, e.g., assessor, sheriff. He also suggests consolidating all the Dakota colleges and universities so that they share a central administration, which oversees satellite campuses. Brokaw sees a possibility for big savings in such measures.

I can see both sides of this argument. On the one hand, I don't think as much has changed as Brokaw suggests since county lines were drawn in some places, especially in the West. That is, 20 miles is still 20 miles, 40 miles is still 40 miles--and that can be a long way to travel to conduct the sort of business that is done in a county courthouse. So, people may no longer be traversing that 20 (or 40) miles in horse and wagon, but they are still having to traverse it to do what needs to be done, and they are often making the journey on poor, narrow roads. Rural broadband and enhanced technology infrastructure could eliminate the need for some such journeys to the court house, but they have not yet done so on a wide scale--in part because of a lack of funding for that infrastructure.

On the other hand, I was shocked in the course of my recent study of county governments in Montana (for a forthcoming article in the Montana Law Review, "Spatial Inequality as Constitutional Infirmity? The Promise of Montana's Constitution for Poor Children") to learn how many of Montana's 56 counties--perhaps a dozen--have fewer than 10,000 people. Indeed, a handful have populations below 4,000. Needless to say, this make for incredibly inefficient government, and it limits the extent to which counties have funds to do anything other than pay the salaries of their elected officials. Residents of counties like these may have slightly more convenient access to their court house (bearing in mind that Montana is the fourth largest state in the nation in land area), but they sure aren't getting much bang for their county government buck.

Brokaw refers to his proposal to consolidate some of these governing bodies a "heresy," referring to the sentimental attachment people have to these county boundaries. It's a bit like how people respond when their local school closes or is threatened with consolidation. A component of one's identity is lost. So the sentimental reasons for preserving county boundaries are strong, but they may not be sufficient to justify the resulting loss of services to residents.

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