We have moved from the "fiscal cliff" (a tax increase) to "sequestration" (a spending decrease) all in the name of trying to balance and get a handle on the size and cost of our federal government. This same rhetoric and debate is happening at state and local government levels as well. Every chief executive and legislative body, in all states, counties, and cities, has the same challenges.
We can all agree we need one federal government. And we all know that each state needs state government. But after that, is it really about shrinking the size of local governments, or is it that we have too many local governments? At what point does it make fiscal and political sense to examine if we have too many levels of local government? Isn't it fair to apply to local governments the same arguments and rationale that is applied when we talk about the number, size, and cost of all the school districts we have in Oklahoma? What about all of the governments we have in Oklahoma and what they cost?
Talk like this, whether it is with school districts or the consolidation of services between city and county governments, is like the third rail in political debates. Those in elected office are afraid to go there for fear of being fried by the voters. If there is talk of change you can expect a strong push back from those who believe they can defend and convince us that the status quo is as good as it gets.
If the "not in my back yard" mentality is about what people don't want imposed on them, then the "stay out of my back yard" mentality is about people who don't want anyone messing with their local government.
Like any other big government undertaking, the idea of truly consolidated government services, (like Louisville, Ky., Indianapolis, and Fairfax, Va.) almost has to be approached piecemeal, one service at a time. Since over 70 percent of citizens in Tulsa who were polled indicated strong support for the city and county sharing services, there is some voter safety provided to elected leaders with the courage to venture down that road. Fortunately, some already have.
We have a good history with the city-county health department, city-county library, city-county emergency management department, shared arrangement with the jail, shared planning with INCOG, and the River Parks Authority as joint operations. But more can be done to follow these successes and save taxpayer money.
In 2010, the Tulsa Board of County Commissioners, Mayor Dewey Bartlett, and several members of the City Council decided it was time to start having some sit down time together to see what they were currently doing and could be doing to unify our government services. After six months of meetings, both city and county leaders found new ways to build relationships and shared services that will benefit the taxpayer. And, like in foreign affairs, the more partnerships and joint ventures there are between governments, the less likely you will "go to war" with the other government, as we have seen in the past.
The easiest areas where the city and county can share services are those internal and external services that don't really require any structural change to either city or county government. Services in areas such as purchasing, street and infrastructure projects, parks, human resources, information technology, disaster response, and criminal justice are obvious ones where partnership work is already underway.
Currently there is a duplication of many city and county functions. For instance, both the city and county have department heads for parks, information technology, public works, human resources, law enforcement, purchasing, and administrative services.
Sometimes talk of a merger or blending or consolidation of services begins when the local government has to start cutting back on services which it can no longer afford. Usually first and foremost on the chopping block are those considered "nonessential" or "noncore" services. History has shown us that those elected officials who do the budget chopping have often put our parks and recreation services in this category.
Perhaps the best way for our park and recreation departments at the city and county level to survive the budget hawks and the great fluctuation of both sales tax collection and property tax assessment is to seriously consider the formation of a city-county parks department with blended staff and broad-based financial and tax support.
If we think about it, can anyone really tell the difference between a city park, pool, or golf course and a county park, pool, or golf course? One is run by the city using sales taxes and the other run by the county using property taxes. But really no one cares about that. Citizens just want a good park system because it improves neighborhoods, increases property values, and offers outdoor opportunities for families.
So maybe it's time to take the next big step of consolidating city and county services by looking at our park systems. This should start with our professional park staffs. It should also include the citizens who serve on the park boards and the users of the park systems. Let's make sure that the best park systems we can have is to have two park systems. If that's not the case, we have an opportunity to turn two systems that often struggle financially into one system that can survive the test of time.
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