Thoughts on the Challenges Facing Local Governments

What makes good government? I would argue good government is competent, representative of the people, proactive, and capable of leading in a manner that reflects the values of the governed. A good governing board is one that exhibits the positive group dynamics that allow the board to serve as a bridge between the governed and the government. But what happens if governing boards lack the capacity to serve as that bridge?

I am thinking about this today after presenting research at the 2018 MPAC conference in Chicago. Doug Ihrke and I surveyed 147 city council members serving Wisconsin municipalities with more than 10,000 residents. We asked about a lot, but today’s presentation focused on one open-ended question: In your words, what is the biggest challenge your city currently faces?

The answers were varied, below are a few responses that reflect the balance of what city council members shared:

  • Desire not to raise taxes amid revenue sharing cuts
  • The unrealistic levy limits imposed by the state along with the expenditure restraint program
  • Reduced revenue sharing and broad brushed levy limits imposed by the state
  • Dealing with State imposed levy limits. You should not have to go to referendum every time a budgetary issue comes up that does not meet levy limit requirements.
  • Being able to provide a consistent level of service within the tax limitations imposed by the state.
  • Operating within the levy limit without cutting services or level of services
  • The restraints the state has put on us will eventually effect quality/sustainability of our work force

This was not what I expected. Upwards of 90 percent of city council members answered this open-ended question the same way, referring to state imposed revenue caps, or state imposed limits on local control. Though it is not entirely surprising that city council members would want more revenue sources and power, it was surprising to see little to no mention of substantive governing issues like services delivery, social issues, immigration, or policymaking.

Instead we saw council members focused on the prerequisites to good governing: Resources and discretion. Of course money and local control does not guarantee effectiveness. But, I’d argue, a local governing body cannot be proactive about implementing services in-line with residents’ values if they are wholly focused on securing the resources that make proactive governance possible. I do not think for a second that council members do not care about more substantive issues, I simply think most lack the luxury to focus on these issues. Something will need to give as the status quo is not sustainable.


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