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Welcome to the best government — county government

By Chris Villines, AAC Executive Director

County culture is changing. The delivery of this issue of County Lines is finding its way into the mailboxes of hundreds of new county and district officials. To those of you reading this magazine for the first time, welcome to the adventure of county government.

You bring fresh ideas and new approaches to your jobs and in time you will build new successes on the shoulders of those who preceded you. Here at the AAC we recently wrapped up meeting most of you in our newly elected official training classes over a two-week period in Little Rock. After meeting most of you I find myself hopeful for our future, based largely in the servant hearts you exhibited while here.

County government, in its purest form, is simply about serving your constituents the most effectively you can. And nobody is positioned better to know what needs to be done than all of you. I want to welcome you to the BEST level of government, I think you will find the work tireless but the reward incredible.

My good friend, Gene Terry, recently retired as the Executive Director at the Texas Association of Counties. In his outgoing magazine column he penned the following:

“…I realize that not much is wrong with counties. You govern well because you know how to do it right. You are so close to the people you serve you could not get away with doing it wrong, even if you tried. It’s time for your way to trickle up. Think of it this way, you know personally a larger percentage of the voters who voted for and against you in the last election than does any state representative or senator and certainly than does any member of Congress. You know them by first name and they know you. They chose you because they know you by first name, too. That is something special.”

Gene articulated this point far better than I could. The fact that you serve so closely to those you represent is a blessing for hard-working county and district officials who want to do right. Your days of going into a local business or church undisturbed are over, but if you care and it shows in your jobs you will find those public conversations often enjoyable and your work appreciated.

With a looming legislative session, this statement also addresses some dangerous assumptions that will find their way into bills at a state level. That assumption is that local government isn’t responsive, isn’t transparent and isn’t accountable. My friend Gene would tell you in his Texas drawl that this is “hogwash.” Nonetheless, we are already hearing of bills that erode local control, but ironically our legislature is full of folks who championed local control when running for office. The idea that at the county level you are incapable of making wise decisions that a parent-state would be better at would be laughable were it not a real danger.

This is representative of a national pre-emption move that some other states have been dealing with. Some of the state-local wars in other states are epic, and the arguments over local control have ignited grass-roots fires where the people, who generally love their county officials, have fought back against restrictions put upon local government.

We have one such example brewing in our state right now, and I want all of you to be aware. The Tax Reform Task Force recently put forward a list of ideas involving income and sales taxes in our state, but they largely left property taxes alone. Among this list of items would be a local sales taxing authority cap at 3 percent for county government.

While it might sound good on the surface, consider a few things. First of all, many “county” sales taxes are split between the county and municipalities located within the county. Secondly, each of these sales taxes was passed by a local election … the majority of people in your county saw a need and were willing to tax themselves to fix a problem. Often these taxes were passed for the purposes of public health or safety, such as keeping a jail open or creating a local hospital. Thirdly, the most recent iterations of this bill would lump all sales taxes together to reach that cap, including Advertising and Promotion sales taxes, which might only be collected on alcohol or restaurant purchases. Many of your local residents understand that a 1 percent tax collected on food eaten at local restaurants only represents a small fraction of their annual spending and in reality equals far less than 1 percent in their annual budget.

Local control is what this is all about. The ability for you as a county or district official to make wise decisions locally. And not the final decisions, at that. It’s about what you refer to the people who vote for or against sales taxes, ultimately taking away your constituents’ rights to decide their future.

Collectively, you know the pulse of the people in your county. You know the county’s needs. And you know that the most powerful demonstration of democracy exists when people get the chance to go to the polls to decide their own fate.

Gene Terry is spot-on in his column. Your constituents in your county are not sheep. They are smart people who make sound decisions. After all, they voted for you. So I encourage you to watch for any other pre-emption measures that might erode your work at the best level of government — because you know your people don’t want to be shut out of making their own decisions.

To close, I’d like to give a hearty congratulations to those county-wide officials who are embarking on the first four-year terms in Arkansas counties. I think the implications for this are great, but I approach it from a slightly different angle. When I was elected in 1998 alongside a new county judge in Saline County, I watched closely to see how Judge Lanny Fite would operate.

Judge (now state representative) Fite never treated his job like it might be over in two years. He began making long-term plans in the hope that he would be around long enough to see them through. A new airport was on the long list of items that took perseverance and stamina, and his planning ultimately saw its completion. He has been effective as a county judge and again as a representative.

The point is this, that a short-term mindset eliminates vision. And two-year terms helped foster a short-term mindset. This is meant not just for you newly elected county officials, but for those returning to office as well — you have been given a golden opportunity to strategically plan for your next four years and beyond. Take advantage of this and spend some energy now reflecting on how your office can be made better over time.

Warren Buffett once said, “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” You need to preserve the ability to plant those seeds without state government intervention, and you need the vision for where those trees need to be. Welcome to the fertile soil of county government my friends, and to Gene Terry, enjoy your retirement ride into the sunset.

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