Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Voting Local and Keeping My Own Council

Today is election day in our town, and turnout's expected to be low -- really low. First, the only decision on the ballot is which two people to elect to replace openings on the town council. Second, it's raining, which always tends to discourage those with an under-developed sense of civic responsibility.

It's too bad that more of my fellow citizens won't be participating in this election, because in many ways it's one of the most important. There's no real money for being on town council -- most do it out of a desire to make a difference in their community. And that difference can be substantial. Road repair, trash pickup, and general infrastructure maintenance all happen (or not) at the direction of the town council.

Is there money in the budget to fund another town police officer? Council decides.

What should the town real estate tax rate be? Council decides.

Should there be a meal tax, and if so, how much? Council decides.

How much money and effort should go into economic development? What can the town do to attract and keep businesses? Ultimately, the council decides.

In essence, the quality of life for each and every person living in the town is affected by the policies and decisions of the town council.

And interestingly enough, the party affiliations that so critical on the national level don't really count for much on the local level. Probably because the issues facing the town are very far removed from the national debate. There's no real issue about runaway government -- the town's budget has always been so modest that it never could support an inflated bureaucracy. Sweeping social changes simply can't happen at the local level -- they're beyond the scope of the town council's authority (not that any member has ever expressed an interest in doing so).                    

But the primary reason these local elections are so important is that this is where the effects of national and statewide polices are felt -- and dealt with. Mandates (usually unfunded) from Washington and Richmond force the town to take on projects it hadn't budgeted for, or take over funding for services it doesn't have the tax base to support. And trying to cover the gap between what's mandated and what the town needs to do to stay healthy is a real challenge.

How should the town meet that challenge? That's up to the town council. And the makeup of that council is up to the citizens.

At least, the few who turn out on a rainy Tuesday in May.

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