October 27, 2008

Thoughts on Consolidation circa 1995

I attended an economic summit called by the Dare County Board of Commissioners Monday afternoon. One of the major themes was the wisdom and benefits that would come if the 6 towns would just consolidate their services and eliminate the waste so obvious in the system of having separate governments for each small enclave.
This is not a new issue. It has been around for a long time. Back in 1995 I wrote the letter posted below. I don't think I ever sent it to the Coastland Times. My views haven't changed in the intervening years. If anything I have become more convinced that small government better serves its constituents and is more responsive and efficient. A few more comments after the letter:

To the editor

I am writing this letter as an individual it express my views and this letter should not be viewed as representing the views of the Town of Nags Head Board of Commissioners, of which I am a member.

In a recent column in the Coast ("The future is now on the Outer Banks", March 12, 1995) you discuss a variety of goals developed for the Outer Banks and imply that foremost amongst the elements necessary for the future success of the area is the consolidation of local governments. You state that a unified government would be more efficient and imply that it is better able to provide the community with the quality of life we all want. Your view parallels the conventional wisdom on the subject and as such may benefit from a closer analysis.

The claim reduced costs is the one most often made in calling for consolidation. Taxes can be cut and redundancy eliminated if we all just pulled together is the battle cry. Nothing could be further from the truth. The 5 towns in Dare County all provide varying levels of service to there communities. If you accept that under a consolidated government that no one community would want to reduce its current level of service and that all the areas would expect the same level of service then it is easy to show that costs would increase. Fire protection offers a good example. The Towns of Kitty Hawk and Southern Shores rely almost entirely on dedicated volunteers to provide fire protection while the Towns of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills have augmented their volunteers with full time paid staff. Extending the same level of paid fire protection to the northern towns would require 10-12 new employees and cost at an absolute minimum $300,000 in salaries alone, quite possibly double that amount. Similar differences exist in other departments as well, extending the level of service offered to a part of the consolidated town to all of the consolidate town will not save money.

The efficiency argument is another questionable claim. If bigger government were better then we would all be praising the federal bureaucracy rather than trying to dismantle it and Washington DC would not be insolvent. Closer to home Dare County, the areas largest government, has no clear edge in providing services. The county recently approached the 5 towns to gauge interest in the county serving as tax collector for all. The town of Manteo has already decided to pursue the idea. On the other hand, analysis of the proposal by the Town of Nags Head showed the town would lose $60,000 by accepting the proposal despite the elimination of personnel. Neither town made the wrong decision, one solution is not always best for all.

Proponents of consolidation also imply that one government will be better able to provide the quality of life we all want on the Outer Banks, again closer examination may debunk this myth. Consider the question of public beach access. The town of Southern Shores has chosen not to provide any while Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills have programs that are models for the rest of coastal North Carolina. If the residents of Southern Shores wanted such a program they would elect leaders who would provide it. They have not. I suspect a unified government would have a hard time convincing the residents of the other towns to accept more visitors on their beaches until similar access was provided in the areas that don't have any. Likewise, the Town of Kitty Hawk is working hard to address the ocean overwash problems in the community. Would voters in the adjoining communities be willing to shell out tax dollars to address this type of local problem? At a national level we are beginning to recognize that the government that is closest to the people is best able to provide services and address the problems of the community. I see little to indicate the reverse is true on the local level.

I am a Commissioner for the Town of Nags Head. I am one of those who you imply are blocking consolidation in order to maintain personal prestige and power. I am very proud of my title but any power I exercise as a member of the Board of Commissioners is exercised for the citizens of the Town of Nags Head. The argument that consolidation is being blocked by petty bureaucrats striving to maintain personal prestige and power is not only wrong it is insulting. The 25 elected leaders in our towns work diligently to find the best course for their respective areas. They serve a public that is seldom responsive and sometimes abusive. They do so because they care and because they want to make the entire area a better place. To imply such crass motives does them a great disservice and is unjustified by their actions.

The towns and County government cooperate in virtually every element of their operations. We share space and equipment, we provide support and expertise for one another. When you see a Nags Head fire truck responding to a call the odds 1in 3 that it is providing mutual aid to a neighboring community as opposed to responding to a fire in the town. By far the largest capital investment the Towns of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills have is the Regional Water System developed in cooperation with Dare County. Our police, fire and planning departments meet regularly to share information and ideas. Where common interests and activities exist local governments have consistently worked together to provide the best service at the lowest cost. In fact I know of no project that had broad public support that failed because of disagreements among the towns. They worked together with the County and the business community to create the new Dare County Tourism Board. They worked together to get a better solid waste contract for the county. They are currently cooperating with the county in the beach nourishment feasibility study. All are county wide projects and all are ongoing now. Any of the projects you listed could be accomplished under our current framework. In fact the expanded level of discussion and review provided by the extra units ensures full support and consideration when a decision is finally made. Does it make it harder? Absolutely. Getting 5 or 6 boards to agree may seem a daunting proposition. In fact it occurs quite frequently and often without fanfare. The Town of Nags Head is currently improving the police firing range. Funding for this project is coming from the 4 beach towns, all of whom use the facility for police training. This was not reported in your paper, frankly it was not a big deal, just the towns doing what they often do, solving problems jointly.

I do not deny the need for more cooperation. Issues like stormwater runoff, land use planning and ground water quality do not know local boundaries. The decisions of one body impact all. To this end we need to do more joint planning, developing regional approaches to these problems. These very issues are currently being discussed by the Division of Coastal Management because they are true not just for Dare County but for all the regions of the coast and beyond.

The final issue I would like to address is the size of government as it relates to the process of electing leaders. Most candidates for town office campaign by going door to door, neighbor to neighbor seeking support. Few mount extensive media campaigns and few raise large political war chests. A consolidated government would mean an end to that style of election. It would put a premium on fund raising and virtually eliminate close contact with the voters. This raises the question of influence from campaign contributors and reinforces the impact of consolidation on the ability of citizens to influence their government. The current system increases the probability that any citizen will know an elected leader personally. Consolidation will make that a distant memory.
I believe that a consolidated government for the northern beaches of Dare County cannot save money and will by almost definition be less responsive to the needs of the community. There is no problem facing the area now that cannot be solved by cooperation amongst the towns. That has been amply proven already. In short, it's not broken so don't try to fix it.

Some of this is a bit outdated. We have 6 towns now and if anything they are even more intertwined. NH and KDH are planning a fire station. The County does trash and taxes for most of the towns. Yet the arguments still hold. Perhaps the best argument against consolidation is the incorporation of Duck. No one suggested that Southern Shores annex Duck. The 2 towns could not be more different. Duck has its Jazz Festival and concerts in the park. It courts visitors and guests. SS doesn't. The biggest problem is SS is that they can't get their canals dredged (BTW that is a quote from the Mayor of SS). They never met government they liked or wanted. Duck has a PR and Special Events coordinator, a very good one. SS doesn't want to pay for a Fire Dept. Who could imagine these two more different towns. How could they be merged? What would be gained?
Those who believe this is about people defending their small pieces of power and prestige have never held public office or if they have they probably didn't do it well. This is about local control of local services and developement. There is too little prestige and too much hassle in elected service to do it for any reason other than building a better community.

Cooperate Yes. Consolidate Never!


At 10:40 PM, Blogger Monticello said...

Nicely done. I think many more of us than people think chose our town first, then our abode. I consider it my duty to lampoon the characteristics of these towns from time to time, and I pick on some more than others. But I understand why some folks love Duck, Southern Shores, Manteo, Nags Head, and even KDH (if they like commerce close by). Consolidation would eventually destroy that. It might work in New York City, but I don't think so here.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home