The Coming Decade of Local Government

Our cities and counties enjoy the highest level of citizen trust of any level of government. That’s why they will lead the way despite the fiscal challenges to come.
June 27, 2012 AT 11:00 AM
Bob O'Neill
By Robert J. O'Neill Jr.  |  Contributor
Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association

In a recent column, I discussed how the next decade will be a time in which the fiscal woes of federal and state governments will leave local and regional governments on their own, struggling to balance the need for innovation against the necessity of making tough choices. But I wrote that it also will be a decade in which local government will lead the way in developing creative solutions to extraordinary problems.

There are a number of reasons to be optimistic about this coming decade of local government:

Local government is consistently rated most favorably by citizens. Year in and year out, Americans rate their local governments most favorably among the three levels of government. In a Pew Research Center survey released in April, for example, just over 50 percent held a favorable view of their state government, while only a third felt the same about the federal government (the lowest positive rating for Washington in 15 years). But 61 percent rated their local governments favorably. This trust factor goes a long way toward ensuring that local-government organizations will have the support required to move their communities forward.

Despite all the anti-tax rhetoric, nearly 70 percent of local initiatives put to referenda in recent years have been approved. The experiences of Oklahoma City, Okla., and Little Rock, Ark., illustrate the power of citizen support for initiatives in determining a community's destiny.

In 2009, Oklahoma City voters overwhelmingly approved Metropolitan Area Projects 3 (MAPS3), a 10-year, $777 million initiative that raised the city's sales tax by 1 cent to fund major improvements to infrastructure and transit systems, build a new convention center and develop a whitewater recreation center on the Oklahoma River. Voter support of MAPS3 is particularly significant in that it was the third time city residents had approved a sales-tax increase to fund major city improvements. As a result of ongoing voter support for the MAPS initiatives, Oklahoma City continues to thrive despite the fiscal challenges of the past few years.

In Little Rock last fall, with an $8 million budget shortfall looming large, city leaders asked voters to support them in rectifying an inadequate half-cent sales tax that had been in place for nearly two decades. Voters responded by approving a 1-cent sales tax increase, the largest in the city's history. Mayor Mark Stodola said the new revenue would finance beefed-up fire and police forces, support the city's struggling zoo and allow Little Rock to undertake larger capital-improvement projects such as a research park designed to attract new business.

Most people want to live in a quality community with great services. As illustrated above, the majority of residents are willing to make hard choices about which services are important to them and then pay for the services they value.

When we examine some of the recent initiatives that were approved by voters, some predictive factors that led to their passage emerge:

Constituents understood what they were paying for. Generally speaking, the more people understand about what services cost and how the money they pay in taxes is used to fund those services, the more likely they are to be supportive of tough cost-cutting measures or revenue-generating initiatives.

There were opportunities for significant community engagement in establishing priorities. The ability to engage every segment of the community when defining which services are most important and how revenues will be raised to pay for them is essential to building a sense of community and gaining support for vital initiatives.

There was a trusted agent that could deliver what was being promised. Most often, that trusted agent has been a local government. In Oklahoma City's proposed 2012-2013 budget, for example, City Manager Jim Couch emphasized that fulfilling the promises made to citizens is an ongoing priority for the city's elected leaders. In turn, voters have continued to approve investments in the community.

In addition to the lessons above, a commitment to information, education, transparency and accountability will be key to the success of local governments over the challenging decade ahead. A hallmark of successful organizations is the ability to translate vision into results, and no other level of government consistently delivers the essential services people depend on every day.