Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How many politicians does it take to govern?

It’s hardly a popular springboard to higher office, but Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx has made merging Charlotte and Mecklenburg County governments one of his top priorities. At his and the City Council’s swearing in on Monday, Foxx renewed his push for it, saying government could work better, “perhaps even less expensively, for the people who pay the bills.”

We doubt that consolidation would cut taxpayers’ bills much. Mountains of research on other city-county mergers have found a mixed bag; indeed, costs went up a bit in Jacksonville, Miami and other places. In Charlotte, there’s little redundancy to root out. One government or the other handles most services for both city and county residents. City Manager Curt Walton said officials examining the idea in 1996 found a “few million dollars” in savings out of combined budgets of $3 billion.

Still, Foxx is on the right track. An independent commission should study how it could be done here, lay out approaches for the City Council and county commissioners and let voters decide.
Here’s why: One elected body and one manager overseeing one bureaucracy should be held accountable for the governance of our one community. Precisely because so much of local government has already been functionally consolidated, it is anachronistic to have (and pay) two boards of directors, with 21 elected officials, and two chief executives. Not to mention two budget directors, two human resources directors, two PR departments, and so on. Even if it doesn’t amount to much, those are salaries worth saving.

More than the money, though, is the accountability. Who do you call to fix that pothole in the road? What if your garbage doesn’t get picked up in the unincorporated area of the county? Who do you boot from office if you don’t like how much money schools have to spend? The average voter can’t be blamed for not being sure.

We’ve seen recently how having two governments over one area can hurt a community’s ability to set priorities, have flexibility in budgeting and react to crises. The city stepped in to help libraries, which are a county responsibility. The city and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have disagreed over who should pay for school police officers. When the county was forced to cut $150 million from its budget over two years, it had limited choices. It couldn’t spread those cuts across city departments serving county residents.

This issue has been batted around in Charlotte for decades. Politics and public officials’ concerns about self-preservation have blocked it in the past. That’s why the planning this time should start there. Tackle the politics successfully and the rest will fall into place. Perhaps voters could agree to a plan that doesn’t kick in for a few years to ease some politicians’ and staffers’ fears that it could cost them their jobs.

Opponents worry about concentrating power in one government. But it’s not like the two current governments are checking each other’s power now. Better to have one body setting priorities, and one body that has to answer to voters.


Skippy said...

So you actually think that is a good idea to give Walton more power? Well, I am sure we evil suburbanites, you know the ones, the tax payers that support the bottom 48%, the welfare state and the BPC agenda really want no part of Mayor Bobbleheads massive power grab and we especially don't want any more interference from the dysfunctional clowns that now run Charlotte.