Change or perish

Author: Barrett Rainey

I’m about to offer several suggestions for which – I’m certain – there’ll be a pile of reasons (excuses) why each won’t work. Failing the smart test, there’ll be more reasons (excuses) why none of them can be done. But I’m a persistent guy and used to swimming upstream. So, here goes.

The premise for these offerings is this one statement. No state in the country really needs all the counties it has. None. In fact, 2012 Census Bureau statistics show one in three U.S. counties is dying. Dying. Put another way, 1,135 of the nation’s 3,143 counties are now experiencing “natural decrease” as deaths exceed births. The young – and immigrants – are moving to the cities.

Oregon has 36 counties – Idaho 44 – Washington 39. That’s 119. Each with commissioners (three to five each), sheriffs, assessors, clerks, judges, treasurers, courts. And jails. Lots of jails. Lots of rundown jails. Some crowded. Some nearly empty. All expensive. With decreasing residents for support. Taxpayers. You and me.

So, Sheriff Kiern Donahue in Idaho’s Canyon County is now publically asking why several nearby counties can’t pool their resources to build regional jails to serve multiple counties? I’ve been asking that for years.

Idaho has seven judicial districts. Sheriff Donahue wants to know why all counties in each district couldn’t share one judicial district jail? “Corrections facility” or whatever. Huge construction savings. Reduced staff. Video links for arraignments rather than deputies tied up on costly travel. Less crowding. Seems to make a lot of sense. So much so the naysayers are out even at the suggestion stage.

Let’s just stay with Idaho for a minute. I’ve wondered for a long time why it needs 44 counties with 44 duplicate governments. Seems to me you could put one prosecutor, for example, in each of the seven judicial districts to handle major crimes and deputies with much smaller staffs in individual counties for lesser crimes. If you can have a county seat, why not a district seat with smaller and less expensive “little seats” in the counties?

Same for assessors, clerks, treasurers. One per district with deputies in the counties. Why not an elected commission per district with an administrator in each county? Even make the local administrators elected if need be.

Go even further. Do we need all of our school districts? Why not several regional superintendents per state with county of deputy “super’s” at county or district levels? Idaho, for example, has 118 districts. Do we really need 118 duplicate administrations and all the added costs? Really?

Much of this government business is created by state constitutions or state codes. “Engraved in stone” as it were. “Just can’t be changed,” some say. I don’t buy that. When needs change or ways of doing things make the old ways unnecessary or outdated, state laws – and state constitutions – can be changed by the electorate. You and me.

Well, needs and times have changed. Technology has changed how we do a lot of things. We don’t think or live the same daily lives as our ancestors did in 1890 when Idaho became a state or 1859 for Oregon or 1889 in Washington. Everything we do has changed – everything – but we’re still hamstrung by what were perceived to be the governmental needs and formats of pioneer citizens over a century ago.

If dividing by judicial districts won’t work for a particular state, make the new design regional. If not regional, then use common market areas or geographic commonality or access. Group together by whatever makes sense for the most economies, convenience or other shared situations

Prosperous businesses have many and varied reasons for success. But one thing absolutely common to all is a regular update of organization and operational structures. Seeing what’s new – what’s more efficient – what the market’s changing requirements are – how those market demands can be met using the best technology and practices.

Taxpayers, after all, are the customers of government – the stockholders, too, if you will. Whether paid for in taxes or fees, government is owned by us. When used properly, it does for we “customers” what we can’t do for ourselves individually. But, as “shareholders,” we have to assure it’s efficient, cost-effective and as up-to-date as we are. Government – at its best – should be a reflection of the governed.

State constitutions can be changed. Laws can be updated. Or repealed. Just because we’ve had “X” counties since 1859 or 1890 doesn’t mean we have to have the same number “because it’s always been that way.”

Some counties are in really bad financial shape. Many school districts are just hanging on. School buildings are crumbling and a lot of teaching curriculums are badly outdated. Many road districts are unable to fund repairs of the old ones much less build the new ones we need. Bridges are failing. Some jails are overcrowded while others are barely used. Many county and city services are being curtailed or even eliminated. Some badly needed federal and state support that used to be is no more.

We can blindly continue what we’re doing because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” But, in the end, we’ll be crushed by the weight of new realities because we refused to adjust and keep up.

Every couple of years, we think nothing of buying a new car so we have reliable transportation. Or the newest things to impress the neighbors. We replace our computers and printers when technology makes what we have obsolete. We even buy new, larger houses to fit a growing family or smaller ones because the family is grown and gone.

But we continue to operate governments and taxing districts the way they were created over a hundred years ago. And in the same number, needed or not. We ask them to service our needs today when those needs have changed but the service provider is still hamstrung with yesterday’s – and yesteryear’s – methods and equipment.

I applaud what Sheriff Donahue is trying to do in Idaho. I hope others come to his cause because he’s right! No county – no state – no nation – can continue operating in 2013 the way it did in 1950. Or 1920. Or 1890. Just because that’s how it started.

Personally, I’m getting tired of paying for buggywhips.

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