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Paving Local Control

March 7th, 2006 by dk

Ever since Measure 5, municipal governments and citizens have complained about the loss of local control. Budget allotments, standards of achievement, and planning decisions become more and more centralized in Salem. Thanks to the state legislature’s well-documented inaction on road funding, Eugene can revive the concept of local control for its citizens.

Eugene City Council is again considering a street fee from households and businesses inside the city limits to address a backlog in street maintenance and repair projects that has recently surpassed $100 million and continues to grow.

The greater opportunity here is to reverse the infantalization of voters that has become the political norm over the past generation.

Voters have been lulled into a fantasyworld where their tax dollars are no longer connected to government services. Voters and politicians conspire together to balance budgets with windfalls and gimmickry. Bonding against future tobacco settlement payments, selling off forestland and other government assets, draining emergency contingency funds: it adds up to a cartoonishly Wimpy style of government. “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a government service today.”

Government agency budgets have become so arcane and distant that we no longer think twice when a government administrator reports that he or she “found some money” in the budget. As if money can be found under sofa cushions, threatened scenarios are often averted at the eleventh hour.

But roads. Roads are really local, really tangible. You can feel them. You can watch what happens when they begin to fall apart. And, at least so far, roads are not protected by the state’s constitution.

So here. Here underneath us and all around us, Eugene city councilors can see to it that the rubber of voters’ funding approval meets the road of government services.

To make this as concrete as possible, voters should be told that, if the funding measure passes, the road maintenance money will be distributed first to the neighborhoods that approved the measure by the highest margins.

How local can we make this overdue civics lesson in local control? The city is divided into eight wards, but each ward is divided into several precincts. The city’s 34 precincts each have fewer than 5000 registered voters. Some have only a few hundred. If road fund allocations took into account what percentage of voters in each area approved the funding measure, people would begin to reconnect their votes with their lives.

Citizens who approved of funding would see the latest traffic calming innovations out their kitchen window. Citizens who didn’t approve would watch cars slowed by the old method: potholes. To each his own.

Well-maintained roads will first elevate pride of place, a good foundation for any community. Property values will begin to increase more rapidly. Businesses will want to locate nearby. Emergency services will record quicker response times. Children will feel safer navigating the neighborhood. All because voters gave government money to do its job.

Other neighborhoods will choose differently. The elements will take back the streets, slowly returning the area to its bucolic roots. The area’s disrepair, even if it’s centrally located, will repel motorists and others. Residents will be left to themselves. This is exactly what some people want.

Neighborhoods will compare their streets with neighborhoods around them. Voters may even learn which ward and precinct they live in. Certain precincts will earn reputations for being low-service or high-maintenance. Neighborhoods will become distinctive again.

Of course every resident of the city will have to pay the tax if the measure passes. But equal pavement is not an inalienable right; nor should it be. Money will flow back to neighborhoods that approved it. If people become unhappy with how their neighbors have voted, they might begin to knock on doors and talk about why asphalt is better than gravel or vice versa. People will have reason again to “take to the streets” — or the lack thereof.

Politics of the most local sort will begin to sprout — a grassroots movement where a road used to be.

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