Inside Tuolumne County Government Series: Final Thoughts
This is the final of seven discussions about local Government. The first in the series provided an overview of County Government and a preview of the discussions to come. The second discussed how our budget is allocated and some of the funding constraints we must work within. Hopefully it made clear that those constraints are not trivial. The third addressed the importance of setting and maintaining consistency in County priorities especially as Government reacts to unexpected, often emergent situations without losing its focus. As in any business, constantly focusing on and evaluating one’s priorities are the essential elements of success. The fourth discussed employee compensation and the factors driving the level of employee compensation. County Government is a service provider. The resource that provides those services is our employees. As a service sector business, County Government’s biggest investment is in its employees. Without quality employees, quality services just aren’t going to happen. The fifth talked about economic development and its importance to a thriving community. The sixth addressed how our workforce demographic and business sectors are changing and how that drives an emerging change in housing needs from the past. While housing is not a Government function per se, Government does get involved in the permitting and approval of development projects and that has proven to be an area of significant public contention. If not properly addressed a lack of adequate and appropriate development will have a significant limiting effect on our ability to attract new and retain existing businesses and their employees as our emerging and growing business sectors change. This discussion will provide a context for how all these subject areas work together to determine local Government’s effectiveness.
Ultimately Government’s success will be judged by those it serves based on how the services provided meet the expectations of its people. Services provided are limited by the revenue available while the expectations of the people have no natural limitation. Hence, the importance of well established and clearly articulated priorities. While Governmental revenues do tend to increase over time during a healthy economy, the cost of doing business increases as well due to natural inflationary economic forces. That increase in costs tends to outstrip the increases in revenue year-to-year resulting in ever-increasing challenges in meeting budgetary constraints. Some of that can be addressed through increased efficiencies. Although you can do more with less to a point, it is not possible to do everything with nothing. Eventually Government either must cut services or further increase revenue or a combination of the two. Revenue can be increased by obtaining additional State and Federal monies which usually come with restrictive strings attached to how those monies can be spent; or, by increasing local revenues through taxes, broadening the tax base or through additional assessments (another word for taxes). Obviously, most residents don’t like the thought of either a reduction in services or an increase in tax rates. That leaves gaining access to additional State and Federal funding and broadening the tax base as the agreeable means of closing the ever-widening gap
between cost for services delivered and County revenues. Since all local jurisdictions face the same funding challenges, gaining additional State and Federal funding is a highly competitive process. Broadening the tax base equals increasing our economy which is another term for economic development. Instead of taxing the existing population and businesses more, increase the population and business base that are liable for the existing taxes. In this county attempting that approach has often met with public push-back whether against new businesses or against new housing development, both of which are essential to a growing economy. Economies either grow or they atrophy and eventually die. Father time is a cruel taskmaster.
How does local Government work? It works on revenue and the hard work of the people it hires to provide public services. It works by regularly setting priorities in a tight fiscally constrained environment. It works by constantly focusing on and reviewing those priorities with an eye towards maintaining consistency in those priorities while also maintaining flexibility and agility to address an inevitably and constantly changing set of challenges. It works by a never-ending commitment to increased efficiencies and process improvements. Besides failure to do those things, why does local Government sometimes not work? It doesn’t work when there is a significant difference between the cost of services and the revenues available to provide those services. This happens principally in one of three ways. The first is the impact of ever-decreasing funding by the State and Federal Governments for their mandated programs. The second is the natural divergence of normal inflation induced increases in cost of providing services and the lesser increases in revenues. The last is the most difficult for Government to deal with. That is the sometimes unrealistic and often conflicting public expectations for Government services. Every service Government provides is provided because some segment of our population has demanded it. Every service provided is someone’s pet rock. That is the quintessential challenge of Governmental decision-making.
This series of blogs was an attempt to shed some light on the larger issues your local Government attempts to deal with daily. I hope you found it informative.