"The economy does not in any way excuse the crooks. They bear full responsibility for their actions, but the break-ins are a reminder that the Great Recession is manifesting itself in all kinds of uncomfortable ways." My newspaper column is about crime, recession, and local government. You can read the whole thing after the jump.
Back to basics for City Council
News & Record
During the run-up to local elections, Joe Guarino of Greensboro runs a questionnaire for City Council candidates at his blog. The first question: "What, in your opinion, is the single most important activity in which municipal government engages?" Despite the boldface type, answers to that query sometimes get a little esoteric.
"Providing value back to the citizens for the investment they make through their hard-earned tax dollars," writes at-large challenger Danny Thompson.
"Serve the community," responds District 2 contender Nettie Coad.
Both are well-intentioned responses from well-respected candidates, but I find myself looking for something more specific, and that something is "public safety." (Several candidates got that one right; you can read the surveys at the eponymous website.)
Guarino's question, and the various responses to it, are not just dry political science. And they are especially important in this particular election year, during which a new city manager is starting the job. I say that not just because public safety is on my mind, although my north Greensboro neighborhood has been enduring a crime wave of an intensity and duration that feels vaguely apocalyptic. The larger context here involves an underlying factor behind the burglary spree -- the impact of tough economic times on the city and its people.
As the Greensboro Police Department said in an e-mail to neighbors after one person was apprehended, "we all know there are always two or three more suspects to take the arrested suspect's place." The cops, by the way, have been great. But there are too few of them, and they are stretched, too. Crime in New Irving Park gets a lot of headlines, but it's a citywide problem.
The economy does not in any way excuse the crooks. They bear full responsibility for their actions, but the break-ins are a reminder that the Great Recession is manifesting itself in all kinds of uncomfortable ways. We are well into an era of high unemployment, with no easy relief in sight, yet the ability of governments to help those in need is constrained by the same economic woes.
People are spending less, which means lower sales-tax revenue for the state. A prolonged housing slump -- economist Robert Shiller, who predicted the bust, says prices could lag for another five years -- might hobble local governments that rely on property taxes for much of their income.
For Greensboro, this crisis could be an opportunity. I don't mean to be a Pollyanna here -- they're called hard times for a reason -- but maybe this is the splash of cold water we need to wake us up. This city has got to focus on getting a few things right, right now. If public safety is Job One, then creating and maintaining an environment conducive to public safety -- that is, making the city a good place to do business and to live comfortably -- come pretty high on the list. At this point, everything else is noise.
To get where we need to go, the City Council must move past the infighting that has defined local politics for the past few years. The main actors in that drama have moved off-stage. Former police Chief David Wray has a good new job with the feds, running security for the Charlotte airport. His nemesis, former City Manager Mitchell Johnson is, well, the former city manager. Whatever messes remain to be cleaned up within the department must be addressed, but the emphasis needs to be squarely on the higher purpose of protecting the public.
Many of us spend less time thinking about local government than we do national and international affairs.
The latter are exciting, but it's the stuff closer to home that usually matters most in our day-to-day lives. Yet hardly anyone votes in our local primaries, and off-year elections can be thinly attended, too.
This is not the year to repeat that pattern. We need to get back to the basics of good governance. One way to send that message is to turn out on Election Day. If you don't take this stuff seriously, why should they?
© News & Record 2009